Picking the right tool for the job is easy with this guide to the different bicycles and their applications.
by: Europe Guide Adam Beecham
While living in Europe, I had a chance to listen to a presentation from Ronald Tamse, a Dutch urban planner from the city of Utrecht, which was just voted the second friendliest city in the world for cyclists. When he saw a tattoo of a bicycle on the shoulder of an American girl, he remarked that for a Dutch person, a bike is seen as a tool. A tool for transporting one person from point A to point B efficiently. He asked the girl why she didn’t get a tattoo of a hammer on her shoulder instead.
His comment sounded strange in a country known for bikes and cyclists. Especially for a city planner whose streets are 50% occupied by people on bikes. But the more I thought about it, the more I began to see his point. The bike is a tool, and as I’ve always been told, you should always use the right tool for the job.
So let’s take a look at a few different types of bicycles as if they were a tool. And how each bicycle is designed to get the job done.
The road bike
The most expensive road bikes are designed for putting a lot of miles behind you in as quickly as possible. Built to be light weight, they’re also good for going up steep hills. Most road bikes are also designed to be aerodynamic for its user, with dropped handlebars forcing the user into a hunched over position to reduce wind resistance. Commonly called a ‘racing bike’ in Europe, that’s exactly what they’re used for. Teams of cyclists dressed in the same color gear hit the road on the weekends training to build up speed and stamina for race day. Unconcerned with the scenery, a competitive road biker only wants to get from start to finish in the quickest time possible. Their bicycle is also designed to help them accomplish this. The lighter weight frame is generally seen as preferential, shaving of a few extra grams of weight could be the difference between a first and second place finish. You will also see any extras stripped away from the road bike, such as saddle bags, fenders, and kickstands. Being more prone to punctures with their narrow, thin tires, a puncture repair kit, spare tubes, and a small pump are almost always located below the narrow seat. Padded bicycle shorts are also almost always worn because of the hard, narrow seats that come with road bikes. Spandex or lycra clothing is also worn to help reduce wind resistance and increase breathability.
The touring bike
For European cycle tourists, this is the preferred method to see the countryside. Built for comfort and speed there are plenty of features that make these bikes the most enjoyable mode of travel while on a vacation. Although not as fast as a road bike, the touring bike is seen as more sturdy and comfortable for longer rides. Generally you sacrifice a few miles per hour, but while on holiday it’s generally preferable to cycle a bit slower. Not only do you get to enjoy the scenery, but riding slower also keeps you safe while navigating the traffic patterns of a new country. Sitting in a more upright position instead of being hunched over will also allow you to look at more than just the pavement, and help prevent neck and shoulder pain for longer rides. The seats are also known to be more comfortable, making padded bike shorts unnecessary, along with lycra clothing and cycling shoes. On a touring bike, a person can get away with wearing which ever clothes they’re comfortable with, allowing you to blend in more while relaxing at a cafe or exploring the shops around town. After you’ve picked up that one-of-a-kind souvenir, you’ll also have storage room as most touring bikes come with potential side saddle or front storage bags. This is also handy in case you need to store things like your camera, extra clothing, and snacks for the journey. Extras like rearview mirror, bungee cord straps, and extra water cages are also nice features to have on a longer journey.
The city bike
This is the bicycle most commonly found on the busy European city streets. The bicycles are built with generally little to no gearing, as the landscape in the city is generally flat. This way there is less shifting as you’re often stopping and starting at traffic lights, or between quick stops at the market, stopping off at yoga or the gym, and then returning to your home or office. The bikes are easy to climb on and off. The city bike also doesn’t require much equipment for yourself, the speeds are lower so even helmets are rarely used* in combination with this bicycle, and no need to wear lycra or spandex. Generally these bikes are not flashy, and don’t stick out much as bicycle theft in big cities is more common. The bikes are also comfortable, often putting the rider in an unpright position allowing them to cycle with good posture. Many of the bikes’ handlebars curve directly back to the person riding the bike to allow maximum comfort. There is almost no need to accommodate for wind drag as trips are often shorter, and taller buildings generally block the wind. These bikes also come with fenders or splash guards for rain. These bikes are typically heavier and sturdier, having the ability to take a few bumps from sharing bike racks and getting knocked over by pedestrians or heavy wind. These bikes come with a kickstand as weight is not seen as an issue with this bike. The bike bell comes in handy for passing people on the street. Baskets, and panniers are also common accessories to haul groceries or work gear. Seats for children can also be added on the front and back of the bike. Tires are wider and thicker to allow more surface area for a smooth ride, and less chance of flats.
The mountain bike
You wouldn’t want to climb or descend a mountain on a city bike. I won’t go to in depth with this bicycle, as most of us know this bike’s purpose. A sturdy bicycle with the ability to absorb the bumps on the road, thick tires with a lot of tread and straight handle bars for maximum stability. Plenty of gears to get you back up the mountain, as the bike is usually a bit heavier also. You’ll need plenty of equipment to use it, helmet and various pads depending how extreme the terrain.
The cargo bike
This is the minivan of bicycles and fairly common in Northern Europe. Usually with a large bin or container on the front of the bicycle, this bike is often seen operated by parents of small children on the way to daycare or the playground. Animals also love them as they can enjoy the breeze against their flopping faces. Construction workers in Denmark often prefer this mode of transport to the bigger work vehicles commonly used else where. Deliveries of wood and supplies can be made easily without all the worry of parking and space. Many small vendors have converted these bicycles into small shops, offering cold drinks or ice cream on a warm day, or delivering mail and packages in logistically challenging cities. These are also popular bikes on moving day in busier Dutch cities.
Just like a carpenter, I now notice when someone uses the wrong tool for the job. Having lived in Europe for most of the decade and having lead cycling trips all over the continent, I notice when I see tour groups using the wrong bike for the situation. When you’re in an environment such as Northern Europe with a lack of hills, and a plethora of scenery, why would you want to ‘race’ to your next destination, bent over staring at the pavement using a road bike? A vacation should be free from the competition that a road bike insinuates, and a higher level of comfort should be enjoyed over a longer holiday. Also, having a race bike on your holiday only perpetuates the stereotype with locals that Americans are always in too much of a rush.
In the south of Europe using a road bike is another story, road bikes can be great if you’re peddling up and down steep mountains and hilly terrain, and if you have a lot of ground to cover. But now having ridden on both road bike and touring bikes extensively, I’d still choose a touring bike while on a mountain vacation. What I lose in speed(generally only a few miles per hour), I’ll make up for in comfort and the enjoyment of interacting more with the environment and locals. If I saw an interesting path heading off the road, I’d also be more confident about taking a touring bike on trails. I also enjoy taking photographs along my cycling routes, so having the storage and stability for me is what I go for. I also prefer the ease of getting on and off not having to worry about clipping in to and out of pedals.
Just as a master carpenter would have many tools, a master cyclist tends to have many bikes. Almost all the European guides I work with have several bikes depending on which situation they will use them for. So when heading out on vacation on the continent that invented cycle tourism, choose your tools wisely…
Ready to ride? Check out some of our cycling adventures!
*Regardless of local custom we recommend wearing a helmet whenever riding a bicycle