“I’m new to Seattle. What kind of bike should I get?”

A pretty and practical hand-built steed from M.A.P. bikes (mapbicycles.com)

This is one of many recurring questions we hear at the shop. It’s a great question because for our terrain and weather, I do think some bike features make more sense than others. Below are my top 3 picks for what to look for.*

1. Eyelets. What are eyelets? Is that a technical term?? What I call eyelets are those little holes near a bike’s dropouts. What’s a dropout? Dropouts are the slots that your wheel hubs fit into at the base of the front fork and rear seat stays. What’s a seat stay? Okay, this could go on for awhile. Maybe a picture would help:

rear dropout arrows
Rear dropout eyelets. Click for larger image.

The arrows point to the eyelets, which are threaded so that you can screw on a rack and fenders. And that’s why I think eyelets are so great: they let you add those two very helpful accessories to your bike.

rack transforms your bike from a toy to a tool by allowing you to carry stuff in panniers, baskets, or, like me, a wooden crate. Without a rack, you have to schlep all your belongings on your back. Fine for some, but I’d rather let the bike do the work.

Fenders are kind of a no-brainer for our rainy city. Without them, any ride results in a stripe of water (not to mention oil from the road) up your back as it all splashes from your tires. With fenders, puddles become the fun splash targets you remember from your childhood.

2. Wide(r) tires. Many bikes in our athletic town cater to the road bike enthusiast. These bikes are made to go fast, and often for long distances. If that’s the kind of riding you’re looking to do, then great! But if you’ll mostly be doing short trips around town, then chances are you’ll be happier and more comfortable with a bike with tires that are wider than skinny road bike tires.

fat tires
Hm. Maybe not that wide.

Why? Plump tires require less air pressure, making them more cushiony on bumpy streets and less prone to flats. By contrast, a skinny tire has to be inflated to higher pressures, which means you’ll feel all those bumps more acutely. (More in-depth comparisons here and here from Seattle blog Off the Beaten Path).

The general consensus is that skinny tires are essential for road racing due to weight savings, but if you’re not racing, why not go with more comfort?

3. Flat or upright handlebars. This one might cause some debate. What you typically see on road bikes are drop bars, like these:

drop barsThese handlebars have multiple places where you can put your hands: just behind the brake hoods for most of the time; in the middle near the stem for more relaxed riding; or down on the bottom, in the “drops,” for when you need more torque, like when you’re climbing a hill or aggressively overtaking the leader of the peloton. Like skinny tires, these bars make great sense for road riding or racing, but for around town, well… I think they’re a little superfluous.

I swapped out my drop bars several years ago for ones like these:

Photo credit: Eco Velo (ecovelo.info)

The higher position of the handles allows me to sit a little more upright, which is more comfortable for me than the forward leaning posture often demanded by drop bars. But I’m not so upright that I can’t get leverage for climbing Seattle’s hills. Really! So rather than several options for where to put my hands, I have one hand position that is generally comfortable for all my urban biking. It’s nice having one less thing to think about.

The experts reading this will point out that stem height, stem angle, seatpost height, and many other factors will affect how upright one’s posture will be when riding, and that it’s totally possible to achieve a more comfortable posture with drop bars. But your friendly bike shop will help you with all of that. I’m just making the case that upright bars can be all you need for short trips around the city.

Photo credit: Eco Velo (ecovelo.info)
Here are some bikes with all the features I mentioned. Pretty! Photo credit: Eco Velo (ecovelo.info)

So if you’re thinking about buying a bike for commuting through Seattle, I hope this gives you some ideas for what features to look for, or at least helps you think about what’s practical for your ride through our hilly, sometimes drizzly, but wonderful city.

What do you think makes for a great Seattle bike? Feel free to comment below.

*Disclaimer: We are not bike experts. We love bikes and know what works for us personally, but we don’t know about optimal frame geometry or tube tensile strength or other technical whiz-bangery (not a real term). For that level of expertise, you’ll want to ask any of the stellar bike shops we’re fortunate to have in this city. These are simply my anecdotal thoughts on what makes a great Seattle bike. 


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