The cycling community sometimes seems to fall into two camps: Those who emulate racing, and those who don’t care the least about racing and performance.
On the one side, you have the mainstream bike industry, who finds it easy to sell racing bikes to anybody interested in cycling for recreation and sport. What used to be “racing bikes” today are called “performance bikes” to make them appealing to a wider audience. The result is novice riders wobbling along bicycle trails on entry-level carbon bikes, which are stable only above 20 mph, a speed most of them rarely reach.
On the other side are advocates like Grant Petersen, whose recent book addresses the pernicious influences of racing on our cycling culture. Through his company, Rivendell Bicycle Works, Grant offers an alternative vision of riders in seersucker cotton shirts on bikes with double top tubes. Every person should be able to go out and ride, but the focus is not on speed and performance.
As so often, both camps have valid points. Grant is right: The racing bikes that are peddled by much of the bike industry are a poor choice for most riders. But the riders who buy them do so for a reason: Riding fast is fun! Sensing the bike accelerate as you increase the pressure. Climbing a hill at speed, soaring like an eagle on an updraft as you see the valley recede below. Feeling your body working at its maximum. Taking a corner close to the limit and having the g force push you into the saddle.
These are the same sensations that made riding a bike when you were a child so joyous. Now these sensations are greatly magnified. It’s like a roller coaster, which recreates the sensations of playground slides and swings, to the nth power.
Long-time readers of this blog know that you shouldn’t have to choose between performance and versatility. Fast bikes can be sensible and comfortable. A performance bike can be equipped with wide tires, fenders, lights and the ability to carry some luggage. Riders can wear clothing that allows them to pedal hard, yet does not make them look so conspicuous. And the faster you ride, the further you can go to explore interesting places and “smell the roses.”
Car enthusiasts long ago stopped being limited by the false dichotomy of “sensible” vs. “fun”. Today, you can get sensible sedans and even wagons with the performance and handling of sports cars. Sporting drivers know that you don’t need to accept the limitations of two doors and two seats to enjoy your driving.
Similarly, performance cyclists do not need narrow tires and clothing festooned with sponsors’ logos to enjoy going fast. What they need is a bicycle built for performance, yet able to cope with the real world. We need to reclaim the term “performance bike,” as it should stand for more than just an entry-level racing bike.
Fortunately, an increasing number of companies offer frames that combine performance with versatility. A local shop in Seattle, Free Range Cycles, builds them into complete bikes that are relatively affordable. They have Rawland frames that appear to be designed for performance, yet are intended for wide tires and fenders. (I write “appear” because I cannot recommend products we have not yet tested.) Recently, they had a lovely Box Dog Pelican 650B bike, which is a great choice with a relatively affordable hand-made frame.
For those who know exactly what they want, Boulder Bicycles also offer excellent machines that are ready to ride. And of course, if your budget allows it and you are not in a rush, there are many constructeurs that can make you an amazing custom bike.
It will be a nice day when bikes like that can be bought off-the-shelf in every good bike shop alongside racing and mountain bikes. For now, they can be hard to find unless you know where to look. So when somebody asks you what bike to get, point them in the right direction! Riding fast is fun, and the more fun new cyclists have on their bikes, the more likely they are to remain in the sport and inspire others to ride.