my first 100 mile ride on an upright bicycle with an internally geared hub, I've received emails from readers asking to elaborate on the difference between doing long rides on a roadbike versus an upright bike. Previously, I had written that I prefer to ride a bicycle with drop bars for rides longer than 30 miles, and that I prefer to wear cycling clothing on long rides. Yet here I was riding 100 miles on a city bike wearing street clothing. Did I change my mind? Am I saying that roadbikes are unnecessary after all?
The short answer is that I think it's all a matter of context. I never did - and still don't - claim that one type of bike is categorically "better" than another. Instead, I think that any cyclist would benefit from considering their specific set of circumstances, preferences and abilities - and planning accordingly. Here are just a few factors that I think are worth taking into account:
Having experienced both, I cannot stress enough how different it is to cycle on hilly versus flat terrain. There is a reason why I did not attempt a 100 mile ride on an upright IGH bike in Boston (and don't plan to), but was comfortable doing so in Vienna: With Vienna as the starting point, it is possible to choose a fairly flat route along the Danube River. Starting from Boston, there is no direction I could possibly go in where I would not encounter hills. Based on past experience, I know that to cycle in hilly New England, I prefer to be on a derailleur-geared roadbike with drop handlebars, and to wear cycling-specific clothing. And based on past experience, I know that the same degree of cycling-specific preparation is not necessary for the flat Danube cycling path. In fact, I regularly encounter cyclists there who are in the middle of a cross-country tour, riding upright bikes laden with panniers. It works for them, as long as they do not deviate from the river trail. On the other hand, I almost never encounter cyclists riding anything other than roadbikes in the hilly areas outside Boston.
Of course, your definition of flat vs hilly could be different from mine. After all, there are those who complete Paris-Brest-Paris on upright bikes. Essentially, only you can know whether you would be comfortable tackling a particular route on an upright bike - bearing in mind that climbing one hill on the way home from work is not the same as climbing hill after hill over the course of a long ride.
Not all cycling is the same, and a "100 mile ride" does not really describe anything other than milage. Do you prefer to ride fast or slow? Do you have a time limit in mind? Do you plan to take frequent breaks, or to cycle with as few interruptions as you can manage? On the upright bike, I did my 100 mile ride in 10 hours including breaks (8.5 hours not including breaks). Had I been training for a randonneuring event or even taking part in a charity ride, that kind of timing would be unacceptable. I knew that I had all day and was fine with cycling at a leisurely pace, so none of that mattered. But had I wanted to cycle faster, I would have chosen a roadbike even on flat terrain.
At least for me, speed also informs my clothing choice. When I cycle fast and in a roadbike position, I tend to get overheated quickly. For that and other reasons (fluttering, chafing), I prefer to do fast rides wearing cycling clothing, whereas for slower rides street clothing is fine. Again, your experience here may differ.
If you plan to cycle in a group, large or small, it is worth taking into consideration what types of bikes the others will be riding. If everyone else will be riding a roadbike, chances are that you will not be able to keep up on an upright bike. If everyone else will be riding an upright bike, it is an entirely different story. I did my 100 mile ride alone, so there was no issue of keeping up with others.
Everyone's idea of "comfort" is different. Some have back, neck or shoulder issues that make it difficult to ride a roadbike. Others report being in extreme discomfort after too much time on an upright bike, finding that their weight is not distributed sufficiently, or else the handlebars don't allow for enough hand positions. To a great extent, these things also depend on a specific bicycle's geometry. That is why it is also important to build up to longer rides - so that you have some warning at what point a particular bike becomes uncomfortable. I knew that I could ride a Bella Ciao bike for 30+ miles without discomfort, and I decided to take the chance. After 100 miles, I did find the limited hand position insufficient and tried to wiggle my hands around as much as possible to compensate - which more or less worked, but was not ideal. Less weight on my butt would have made me more comfortable as well, though lowering the handlebars helped.
I know that many of my readers simply do not like roadbikes and do not like the idea of riding in cycling-specific clothing - so they want to hear that it's possible to complete long rides on an upright bike while dressed "normally." If that is your situation, that's fine. Simply start with that premise and take it from there. If you live in a hilly area but aren't a strong enough cyclist to tackle the hills on an upright bike, then it could be worthwhile to travel to a flatter region in order to complete the ride: Do some research and then take the train or drive to a suitable location, if that's what it takes. Why not?
I love all kinds of bicycles and am excited by the myriad of possibilities out there for different cyclists, different types of terrain, and different riding styles. From relaxed family touring along river valleys on upright bikes to pacelining up mountains on aggressive roadbikes, anything is possible. And I think that's great. If you have any tips based on your own experience, please do contribute. What is the longest ride you've ever done, and on what bike?