Cycling Kit

Since I’ve abandoned car ownership, I have given a lot of thought to cycling kit, as it is my main means of transport.

First of all the Bike itself. I ride a Condor Squadra. This is not the bike I would have chosen were I to buy it again as it is an out and out road bike, with no eyelets for luggage or room for mudguards or tyres bigger than 25mm, it’s fine in the summer, but not so great in the winter. Carbon fibre, which is what the seat-stay is made from, isn’t the right material for an everyday bike.

So what advice would I give to someone thinking of selling their car for a bike. First, bicycles are still seen mainly as a leisure activity in the UK and the bikes available reflect this. Road bikes have tight clearences, skinny tyres and close spaced gears. Mountain bikes have strong frames, knobbly tyres and extravagent suspension. You do NOT need suspension on roads, it’s just weight. Both road and mountain are almost useless as an everyday commuting bike. You know why? Because they weren’t designed for it. Road bikes gear ratios are too high for climbing if you’re carrying anything at all, and knobbly mountain bike tyres and suspension make pedalling about 50% harder work than it needs be on most mountain bikes.

Buy a Dutch, Hybrid, Audax or touring bike, with clearances for big tyres for the winter and room for mudguards. Did I mention mud-guards? The Crud Road Racer IIs are excellent and make a road bike acceptable in winter, but a proper set of mud-guards are even better and certainly tougher. Most bikes in the UK are sold without mud-guards for aesthetic reasons. None of the bikes you see mountain-biking or racing on TV have them, so bikes with them look old fashioned. It is quite simple. With mud-guards and a decent coat, only the tops of your thighs get wet, in all but the most torrential downpour. Without mud-guards, you get soaked in seconds in the merest drizzle.

Frames should be steel or (if money is no object) titanium, not aluminium or carbon fibre. Why? Because steel and titanium are tough, and aluminium and carbon fibre are brittle and you’re going to be lugging stuff over pot-holes. You wouldn’t use a Ferrari every day, why would you use your Colnago?

Wheels. Any fewer than 36 holes on the rear is just stupid. Once more, Tour de France bikes have as few spokes as they can get away with for aerodynamic reasons. They have a mechanic who can and does true the wheels daily. These guys also weigh half what most of us weigh. You’re buying a bike to use every day, and it’s going to be lugging stuff over pot-holes. Leave the 28-spoke wheel for the weekend, on your carbon fibre road bike.

Gears. If you don’t have a hill to climb, 3 or 5 speed hub gears will be fine. Otherwise derailleurs are popular everywhere for a reason. Although they require maintenance, the close ratios and index-shifting make much more efficient use of the 1/2 horsepower you have available. Hub gears are however, basically maintenance free. Beware road-bikes. There is a culture amongst freds of Big-Ring masochism. Because Miguel Indurain could climb on a big ring, everyone wants to. This hurts knees. Get gear ratios apropriate to the task and your level of fitness. Were money no object, for my every day bike I would use a Rolhoff Speedhub, but as it is, I have a 9speed Camagnolo cassette and a compact front.

Saddles: Padded saddles are NOT comfortable for any more than a mile. There’s a reason why almost all round-the-world cyclists use the Brooks B17, a saddle which has been in constant production in the same factory in Birmingham since 1866. Because it’s the most comfortable. Trust me on this one. £70 for a saddle, and you will never, ever want another. I use the Brooks team Pro and I love it. If you’re sitting very upright and Comfort is your main consideration, try this, but really, if you’re using the thing every day, buy a Brooks saddle there is no other choice.

You can spend anything from £400 to £4,000 on an every-day bike. At the bottom end, you’ll get a reliable if heavy hybrid, and at the top end, you will have a hand-built steel or Titanium frame, measured for you with top-of-the range components. Remember the cardinal rule of cycling. Cheap, Light, Strong: Choose two. You get more benefit from tyres at the correct pressure and the saddle at the correct height (probably up a couple of inches) than an extra £1000 on the bike’s cost. You’re not racing, so don’t buy a racing bike. You’re not going off road, so you don’t need knobbly tyres. You ARE going on roads which may be wet, so get mudguards. Mudguards make all the difference to winter cycling. They’re even more important than the clothes.

Luggage is the other reason people give for not wishing to commute. Very few people need to carry more than a ruck-sack every day. Certainly two panniers and a ruck-sack will carry a week’s shopping. And if you regularly take big loads, I reckon this will carry more than a small car. Kids? No problem. For day-to-day use, I’ve a courier bag, from Bagaboo in Hungary, which keeps everything dry, even in the most torrential downpour, and can take a week’s shopping for one home from the supermarket. If you want a courier bag, I would highly recommend their Workhorse messenger, and they will even stitch your own design. Others swear by rucksacks. Most people who carry lots of stuff over a long distance, let the bike take the load with panniers, bar-bags and baskets. Trial and error, work with what you’re comfortable with as there is no right answer.

What about clothes? Well the commuting cyclist is well catered for now. One extravagence is a pair of Rapha jeans which are wonderfully comfortable. Another is a merino wool habit. This means I don’t have to dress up as a mobile billboard every day and can more or less cycle to work in normal day clothes. Merino resists odour, wicks sweat and keeps you warm or cool. Magic stuff. I have in the past kept suits in the office, and carried them with me. It’s not a great problem having to change. If you’re clean, you shouldn’t need a shower if you’re commuting less than 5 miles, especially if you take it steady. A pair of overshoes is a must, as is a waterproof, some of which are not eurofluro. Also look at Outlier and Velobici. It’s not cheap, but think of it in terms of full tanks of petrol. Ah, that merino Jersey costs one tank of petrol… see. Easy to justify.

These days there is no reason why you shouldn’t abandon your car entirely for all journeys of less than 5 miles. Try it. You might just start to like it.

14 replies
  1. David Jones
    David Jones says:

    Merino, merino, merino. I wear it all the time on and off the bike. I can wear merino socks for a week and they don't smell!

    I like your tank of petrol reasoning. Wear merino all the time and you can cut down on home heating bills. Icebreaker or Rapha are the best.

    For the bike fixed gear is the way to go.

  2. Martin
    Martin says:

    On a par with merino is bamboo clothing. I find it a bit more comfortable than merino and it also doesn't smell.
    A tip for winter/spring cycle commuting:- make sure you have adequate, warm, preferably waterproof headgear! I went into work one pleasant spring evening wearing my normal cap, but the overnight temperature dropped, and I cycled home in a blizzard in the morning (on a road bike!). By the time I'd got home, ten miles later, my cap had a block of ice on top and my forehead was totally numb.

  3. Chris
    Chris says:

    Since going car free, I have been getting along really well with my folding bike. I thought not having a car would make it really hard to get places, but I can take my bike right on the bus or train, so I wouldn't say I've hardly noticed the difference, but it's just not that big a deal.

  4. pete
    pete says:

    A good article on the whole.

    However, Brookes saddles are not the bees knees some newer cyclists think they are.

    They are expensive, require breaking in and stay wet for ages.

    There are plenty of other saddles these days which have none of these disadvantages and are just as comfortable.

  5. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    bit disappointed you don't even mention lights – I can't believe the number of idiots who cycle in rush hour in winter when it is getting dark with no lights wearing dark clothing.

  6. David Williams
    David Williams says:

    Great article and it deserves to be more widely read.
    I've shied away from messenger bags as I've found other single strap bags tend to slip around and hang under my chest. I would be interest to hear your thoughts on this?
    JohnofEnfield, the rule of thumb is that you should spend approx 10% of your bike price on a lock. All good ones are graded bronze to gold

  7. David Williams
    David Williams says:

    Great article and it deserves to be more widely read.
    I've shied away from messenger bags as I've found other single strap bags tend to slip around and hang under my chest. I would be interest to hear your thoughts on this?
    JohnofEnfield, the rule of thumb is that you should spend approx 10% of your bike price on a lock. All good ones are graded bronze to gold

  8. Malcolm Bracken
    Malcolm Bracken says:

    David Williams: Most messenger bags have a stabilsing strap which prevents it slipping round.

    Anon. Lights. Yes, it's a bit unsporting to not give the motorist a chance to see you. I chuck out 2×900 lumens to the front and have 3 lights rear. I'm not suicidal, so I think "christmas tree".

  9. BrianSJ
    BrianSJ says:

    Good piece. You don't have to go much further or faster for a couple of changes to be necessary.
    1) put your luggage on the bike not your back. Preferably a pannier to keep the weight low.
    2)lose the mudguards and feel the difference in drag.
    When commuting through London a long time ago I needed to scrub the rims weekly if I wanted to have any braking capability. These days I'd wonder about the cost/benefit of disc brakes. Any view?

  10. Malcolm Bracken
    Malcolm Bracken says:

    Brian, I remove my mudguards in the summer. But for an every-day bike, I think I would still like them on.

    Panniers and carry. For short distances, I carry a bag, less faffing at the far end. For long distances, I let the bike carry the weight.

    I've never used disc brakes, but it seems to make sense. The major cause of wheel failure is rim wear.

  11. Boy on a bike
    Boy on a bike says:

    To mudguard or not to mudguard depends on the sort of weather in your area. In Sydney, it seems to be either dry or absolutely bucketing down. Most cyclists that I see don't bother with mudguards as when it's really pouring, you can easily find yourself cycling along a road with each shoe plunging into the passing torrent at the bottom of the stroke. In those conditions, you get wet underneath from the weight of rain splashing up from the road! You just accept that you're going to get utterly drenched, and deal with it.

    My commute is just under 10 miles each way – at that distance, almost every bike I see is a proper road bike. I've cycled with some blokes who are doing 20 miles each way. Hybrids, fold-ups, uprights, mountain bikes and even BMX bikes are fine for short distances, but the road bike takes over as the distance increases. I've seen plenty of commuters out my way start with a mountain bike and then transition to a flat bar hybrid or road bike after a few months.

  12. The Twisted Fire Stopper
    The Twisted Fire Stopper says:

    Disc brakes are a good addition. As for lights, stick as many red flashing LEDs on your back, hat, bag and bike as you can. I'm not letting the fuckers use the excuse that "Sorry, mate, I never saw you"


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