Friday, March 3, 2017

The Reluctant Roadbike Commuter



When I moved to rural Ireland, lots of people said (or wrote) to me some equivalent of: Aha! There’s no way you will continue commuting on an upright step-through bike. Those distances, those hills, those wind speeds? A roadbike will be more efficient and faster.

And they weren’t wrong about those factors posing a challenge for plain-clothed transport cycling, as I had hitherto known it. However, I resisted the switch. Not out of principle. But because for transport, I genuinely feel more comfortable, more relaxed, more at ease, on an upright step-through bicycle - pedaling at moderate speeds, wearing my street clothes and shoes, arriving at my destination refreshed but not bedraggled.

And so, despite the challenges of my new environment, I never changed my ways. And three and a half years later I still mostly commute on upright step-throughs. There are, however, times when even I must concede this is not a suitable option. When my destination, for instance, lies over a mountain and time is of the essence. Or the wind is so strong, that an upright bike would mean traveling at walking speed. Or even when I want to get some exercise and do not have the time to cycle for transport and sport as separate activities.

On those occasions, I do use a roadbike to get around. And while it's not exactly ideal, I try to make the best of it. And as I rarely discuss this particular topic, today I thought I'd share my setup with you here.



Setting up a roadbike for commuting is not in itself a problem, even for a backpack-hater such as myself. As my freelance work involves mostly writing, taking photos, and meeting with people regarding both of those things, in simplest terms I need the bike to carry my laptop and camera. This can be easily achieved by attaching some cycling luggage. The easiest candidate in my stable is Alice, as she is permanently fitted with full mudguards and a front rack.

In commuter mode, I affix onto Alice a handlebar bag, a saddlebag, front and rear lights, and a stainless steel water bottle.

Not so much because of the bags, as because of what is in them, in this state Alice weights at least 30lb, yet remains a fast performance bike - ready to deliver me to and from my destination with minimal struggle.



More complicated is figuring out what to wear for this style of commuting. If I'm planning on meeting with people, or on sitting indoors for any length of time, I cannot arrive in all-out cycling gear. I know there are cyclists who find this doable, and I am genuinely glad it works for them. But for me it's uncomfortable, both physically and mentally, to spend the day in roadcycling apparel. Equally uncomfortable is riding a roadbike in street clothes, especially when distance and hills are involved. In a leaned-over position, jackets and tops start to pull at the seams; waistbands dig into tummy fat. Overall, 'normal' clothing begins to feel too fluttery and bulky to me once a roadbike gets involved.

My compromise outfit aims for a happy medium. I wear padded shorts, with stretchy leggings over them. A base layer on top, with a long tunic over that. This tunic - a genius garment from Ibex - is a heavyweight jersey knit that nearly resembles a tweedy jacket-like thing, features a 2-way zipper, and is long and drapey enough to disguise the unsightly bulge of my padded shorts.

Naturally, all of this is wool. As are my socks, underwear, neck warmer, and inevitable hat. From some angles (sadly, not from the one photographed!), this outfit almost passes for presentable. Except of course for those clipless shoes...


Not to worry though, as I can bring my walking shoes, or boots, along in one of the bags (see also: Hysteria and the Cyclist's Wardrobe). Today they are in the Berthoud handlebar bag (size Small). However, normally that space would be occupied by a massive camera and lens(es), so the shoes would go in the back.


For the rear I use a Dill Pickle saddlebag, size Large, made extra-wide for me on request to accommodate my 13" laptop inside a padded sleeve. This bag takes only a couple of minutes to attach/detach, and does not require a support rack. It can turn any bike into a laptop-toting commuter!


The interior can swallow a 13" laptop easily, and then some, with room for shoes to spare. I can even stuff some random food items in there in addition, if I feel like stopping by the shop on the way home.


The Lezyne lights I use these days (see review here) are reassuringly bright and easy to share between bikes.

On Alice, which was previously fitted with a generator hub that has since been removed (needs servicing), I thought I would miss the lack of generator lighting and be quite annoyed to use these clip-on lights. However, in practice it has not been an issue. And miraculously, the headlight beam actually clears my handlebar bag.


In the winter, I will also wear the dreaded 'puffy jacket.' Although normally I am no lover of the aforementioned garment, it is a jacket that is both warm enough to accommodate the sort of extreme temperature dips we can get here in the course of the day, and compact enough to shove into an already-stuffed handlebar bag should its services not be required.

Overall, I stay comfortable, warm, dry. I have all the stuff I need for work. I look not great but okay. And even as I long for the step-through frame, the upright posture and the joys of a long tweed coat, I have to admit that the roadbike's speed and position are assets in difficult riding conditions.

I'm a reluctant roadbike commuter. But when push comes to shove, a grateful one. 


35 comments:

  1. Unfortunately it's hard to fault those silly puffy jackets, I have a vest and it keeps me acceptably warm most mornings and I can squash it up & stuff it in the bag on the way home. It ain't elegant, but it works! - masmojo

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  2. The saddlebag is nice. I take it it either does not sway, or the swaying does not bother you? Feedback would be great, as I am considering ordering one.

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    1. If I make sure the straps are pulled as tightly as possible (within reason), the bag hardly sways at all. It was even fine over mountain passes on our tour last summer (see here). However, this is one of those things where some people are super sensitive to it and others less so. I am in the latter category. Hope that helps.

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    2. I just got my Dill Pickle Large Extra-wide Saddlebag, like Velouria's plus "long flap" which I'm not sure hers has. I've taken it out twice: one longish hilly ride with the bag half full and a short, flattish but "stuffed to the gunnels" trip. I didn't notice any sway at all. In fact, I forgot I had the bag at all, while moving. My plan is to tour with this plus the Dill Pickle bar bag I've had several years -- a very similar set up to what V did last summer, although our trip will be more miles and far fewer hills. Anyway. Dill Pickle bags are very carefully thought-out and designed, and superb quality. I highly recommend.

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    3. Oh, I should have said - my bag is mounted via a Carradice SQR frame and seatpost-mounted bracket.

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  3. As you likely know, most of my commute runs along the Minuteman Bikeway and to my surprise, I see many more bike commuters who use road bikes rather than upright city bikes. They also wear full cycling kits and backpacks, which means they change into regular clothes at work. This always made me wonder whether this style of commuting is in any way better than just riding in work clothes on a regular city bike? Maybe they have to ride long distances to work? Maybe they treat their commute as some kind of training? I don't know but in our area wind and hills are not an issue so that can't be the explanation.

    But an off-topic question - what is the head tube angle and fork rake on your Alice? Just curious.

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    1. Cannot find the CAD file at the moment, but from memory it is something like 73deg / 68mm or 72.5deg/ 70mm; the trail is in the low 30s anyhow.

      Regarding the Minuteman roadie commuters, I used to wonder about that too. I think the answer is that some go way beyond the end of the trail; I even met a guy who commutes to Sterling! Yikes.

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  4. Men's clothing may be easier for the drop-bar commuter, given inter-mountain business casual dress, anyway; I'd have to invest in shooter's jackets etc if I had to even get to academic-tweedy respectability. Up to about 15mi one way there really is no reason in my low-humidity climate (other than the clippy shoes) for cycling-specific stuff.

    Integrated bikes make commuting just better--the front-loading randonneuring/audax frame combines sprightly performance with lights, enough weather-proofing, and luggage carrying capacity to do what I need done without additional on-body baggage. Only heavy slush and glare ice really challenge the paradigm, the one due to packing-up the fenders (and going without mudguards challenges the wardrobe), the latter due to the broken ribs and mangled shoulder suffered over the years (even with carbide studs and wide-ish tires on those few slippy days).

    I would qualify as a reluctant upright-bike user if I regularly had to get around in a suit. Upright bikes just fail the minimum-fun test once the wind comes up or even moderate hills interpose themselves between where I am and where I need to be, and I prefer to avoid sad cycling experiences when I can. No need for negative reinforcement of my favorite mechanized way of moving in the world.

    Cheers,

    Will
    William M. deRosset
    Fort Collins, CO

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  5. I commute about 5 miles each way on a fat tired road bike (Genesis CdA 20) and always wear cycling clothes and change at the office. Although it feels a bit like overkill for a 20 minute journey, I appreciate not having to worry about pushing a bit hard and getting sweaty (I can't resist doing intervals between bus stops...).

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    1. Sounds familiar! My husband can't resist doing intervals cycling to the village shop 1 mile down the road ...even if he rides one of my loop frames.

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  6. I forget, did you ever write about your preference for handlebar and seat bags over panniers?

    I only ever used handlebar bags when doing loaded touring with front and rear panniers too, and never considered handlebar bags for main cargo- maybe because I load up my panniers so much.

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  7. I notice your Commute Garb is rather subdued, I know you use lights, but do you worry about being visible? Even with lights I've taken to Loud & Obnoxious clothes "HELLO! I'm Biking here!" One old chap in the Elevator yesterday commented on my rather obnoxious style sense. After I explained it to him he didn't seem quite so annoyed! ;-) LOL, but with all the people on Cell Phones these days it's even more important then ever!

    I very my riding garb based on #or miles, where I am going and whether I'll be stopping somewhere or going straight home. Generally if I am only riding to & from the Train, I'll wear street clothes, If I am riding the whole distance (14 miles) to/from Work I'll wear cycle shorts & top, change when I get where I am going. - masmojo

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    1. So firstly it took me a while to actually feel comfortable cycling here at night on the pitch black country roads. In fact it's only this past year that I've been doing it freely, as opposed to trying to schedule things in a way that avoids or limits travel in the dark. Prior to this year, I would try everything to make myself feel less scared of it, including reflective clothing, and it didn't make any difference. Then finally, I just crossed a threshold where I became calmer and more comfortable with the area, and for me it was more about that than anything else.

      When I am riding at night with lights on, I get such clear feedback from motorists that they can see me (they give me WAY more room when passing than they do during the day) that I don't feel the need for reflective clothing. But I think it all depends on what it's like where you live.

      I think he bottom line is: To enjoy the cycling experience, we do need to subjectively feel safe. So whatever does that for any given individual seems like the way to go.

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    2. It's often dependent on where one cycles at night. I've noticed on long stretches of dark country roads it's easier for a car to see me with my simple battery lights than it is in heavy urban traffic where I'll be sure to have my reflective vest on. It's always in my panniers.

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    3. @masmojo: my typical wardrobe is rather subdued, too, but I don't worry at all about being seen, even in the dead of winter when it's dark by 16:00. I have bright lights fore and aft and retroreflective tape on every available surface. Pedal reflectors and one ankle strap on my right leg round out the look. Based on feedback from motorists - generous passing distances, patiently waiting behind me, or occasionally honking - I'm seen on the bike every day, despite a wardrobe of black/brown dress pants, black shoes, and a dark colored button-down dress shirt. Aside from the ankle strap, you won't see a bit of ANSI safety yellow/lime/pink/orange in my closet.

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  8. You cycle more than I do presently, so take my two cents with as many grains of salt as you wish, mixing metaphors.

    I can't imagine wearing padded shorts all day! As a male it would... induce rash. One's experience may vary. In cooler weather I found that, unpadded, merino boxers were just right for cycling and wearing for the day. Actually, merino for all the first layers. Completely agree wanting a svelte profile. If I had to ride and work in the same clothes I might just raid the Rapha catalogue, or knockoffs I can afford, and wear them without apology, raffishly, not unlike the profile you cut in the pictures (allowing for my opposite gender).

    I had that bottle cage for my Kleen Kanteens. It snapped in the cold. Irish cold may not be Toronto cold, though. The quietest replacement I found was a King Cage Iris. It's the shape. Velo Orange makes a similar one.

    You remind me winter is ending, my commute is just 12km, and I have 'dad-bod' to repair. Do I fix up the road, touring or fixed gear first?

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    1. I only sometimes wear the padded shorts. Depends on the distance, terrain. Sometimes there is no ideal option and it's just a matter of choosing the lesser discomfort. Otherwise: car, the biggest discomfort of all!

      That bottle cage is there for one reason only: to make the bottle (not the Klean Kanteen, but the sports ones I'd normally use when road cycling) easier to get in and out as I am pedaling; I have trouble doing this with metal cages, as they tend to hold the bottle tighter.

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  9. I am one of those kitted minuteman road bike commuters. It is about time and training. 30 base miles a day, in about the time it would otherwise take me to drive. And, I dispute the idea that we do not have wind here!

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    1. Makes sense. But heck, even if you wanted to go out for milk around the corner wearing cycling kit and a backpack, I don't see the problem if that's what you want to do.

      Now this "wind" you speak of! Well, come visit the north west of Ireland; then we'll talk.

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  10. After riding a flat bar road bike for the past 12 months I decided to invest in a beautiful drop bar road bike and this bike is used for commuting, being faster and lighter than my mountain bike. I wear everyday clothing that is comfortable on a bike, I have no cycling specific clothing apart from cycling gloves and helmet (compulsory here in Australia). I don't have far to ride to work, just minutes, so no issue there but for those who do the change of clothes and shower at work makes sense. I carry all I need in a light, nylon back pack so no racks/bags/baskets on my bike, or mudguards/bells/lights, I keep it simple.

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  11. Since moving (part-time; weekdays only) back to London, I am commuting every day on my Surly Cross Check. My route is 12 miles - I ride it in full in the morning and get train assist back, since I often work late enough to be clear of the bike ban on train during peak hours, plus I struggle with other cyclists' bright lights this time of year. (Yeah, cycling congestion on London's trunk roads is a real problem. Dealing with the lighting 'arms race' currently afflicting urban commuters is just too much. Roll on, spring time or at least the clock change to BST.) Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah. Set up and clothing. I probably look a bit more like I'm on tour than you do. But I do aim to cover the pad of the shorts/tights. Tunics are good. I favour Nuu-Muus, because they wick, dry fast and a bit of totally non-bikey colour that just cheers me up. My body type just does not look good in clingy/woollen type tunics -- I've drooled over Ibex's offerings before but it's just not a good luck for me. Otherwise - yeah, pretty much merino everything, especially next to the skin.

    I've blogged about my commute set-ups before but with the move back to London, need to think about updating that.

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  12. I commute to work on a drop bar touring bike, just over nine miles each way. Dress code at work is business casual. I have three pairs of trousers which I can ride in, then wear all day at work. In order of my preference:

    Endura Urban Stretch Pant
    Prana Stretch Zion Pant
    Roscoe Outdoor Men's Washakie Pants

    I do not generally wear padded shorts under the trousers, just comfortable non-cotton underpants. I wore padded shorts for a while, but when they hold sweat in... it's just not worth it, and I'd rather not have to change at work to remove them. Below about 35 °F / 2 °C I put a layer under my trousers, such as running tights or wool thermals, and keep it on all day. Sometimes this makes me a little warm at work, but I don't have a physically demanding job so it's tolerable.

    On top, I start with a thin base layer that I will be wearing all day. Recently it's been an Adidas Performance Tech Fit. I can wear it at least three days in a row with no stink, as it's nylon, not polypropylene.

    I then layer appropriate cycling clothes over the top, from nothing at all on a hot day, to another base layer, long sleeved jersey, puffy, and windshirt (like a Patagonia Houdini) on very cold days. When I get to work, I can just remove all but the first layer at my desk while still being "decent," then put a collared shirt on top.

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  13. I've solved this problem two-fold. Being too ill to ride most of last year, and then packing in working altogether. :)

    Hopefully I'll be back n the bike soon, but no more commuting.

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  14. Where one lives will often determine the type of transportation choice. I've had to give up my preferred choice and adapt to the most functional alternative many times. Do you follow other cyclists around the world?

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  15. Do you wear that jacket over the top of your clothes in the photo? Seems to miss the point. I cycle in temps of ten to thirty degrees in the winter and find this combo odd.

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    1. It's not a bad-looking jacket; casual but not bad.

      As far as temps: It can get very 'subjectively' cold here. Often I wear warmer clothing than I did living in New England. It doesn't make sense until you experience it for yourself.

      See also: 'Wet' vs 'Dry' Cold

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  16. Don't be a reluctant road bike commuter.Embrace your roots! Join those of us who endure the elements on our upright bikes. Miles, winds, no matter, we are with you in promoting this tradition of cycling in everyday clothing and getting about our daily business. It takes a bit of grit, but that's what I love about bikes. I can't afford a fraction of one of your bikes, let alone the stable you present, so it's marching onward with what I've got. Stay safe and happy.

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    1. I appreciate and agree with the sentiment. But I'd love to see you do this in my 'hood, and still arrive to a work-related destination both on time and lucid enough to actually be productive! I had a completely different definition of 'the elements' before moving here.

      That said, I still do the vast majority of my transport cycling on an upright step-through. Probably 95% or so in summer, 75% in winter. For the times I am not physically able, it is nice to have an alternative.

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  17. Do you not wear your Stealth Pantaloons anymore ? Or have you retired your pair ?

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    1. A year or so ago I wore a sizable hole through the bottom; they're still waiting to be mended : (

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  18. Reading your posts like this one has, over many years, helped me to use bikes for transport. All the ideas you share with us make it seem fun and easy and doable in a stylish way. Thank you!

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  19. As a fan of commuting by bicycle who cares about what kind of bike? I don't feel sorry for you that you've had to reluctantly use a road bike for getting around. I lost my romance with step through upright bikes long ago.

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  20. Funny about the puffy jacket. Here in Oregon (USA) it is common site. Everyone wears a puffy. We even wear them with scarves, dresses, boots, a cute knit hat, and somehow it looks fashionable. Well, at least outdoorsy Oregon fashionable ;) Great article and Hi from Oregon!


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  21. Traveling via bike for so many years I'm grateful for my puffy down jacket. It easily compresses down to next to nothing when not in use and does it's job when needed. I guess commutes are relative and light layers are what works for me. Whenever I put on a full length wool coat on my bike it's for a distance that I might also walk.

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  22. A very interesting post. As a long time reader it is high time to acknowledge that one of your posts from years ago about saddlebags changed my commute forever. I can't thank you enough.

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