Guide to Vintage-Inspired City Cycling

I am by no means an expert cyclist, and in fact, you could say I’m the opposite. So when I decided to start riding my bike to work on the streets of San Francisco, I did a bit of research (and a fair amount of trial and error), to make my commute comfortable and, most importantly, safe.

Here’s a quick list of things I’ve learned:

  • take a cycling class (or at least read the road rules) to keep yourself safe
  • take an on-road class if you’re a new, or timid, rider
  • don’t push yourself past your own comfort-level, other riders might be more skilled (or just really stupid)
  • always wear a helmet, and be sure it’s adjusted correctly
  • a bandana over your ears keeps the wind and cold out (and also helps against helmet-hair)
  • you’re going to get snotty, so keep a tissue handy (especially if it’s cold outside)
  • wearing leather gloves (or half-gloves) will protect your palms if you happen to fall
  • your shirt is going to ride up in the back when you lean forward, so layer for this
  • you can get cold and hot while riding, easily changeable layers of clothing are great
  • make sure your shoes stick to your pedals–if your pedals are plastic, sticky-rubber soles are the way to go (I’ve found Vans are the best, Keds are slippery)
  • just like riding a horse, push your heels down and you’ll feel very connected to your bike
  • when riding downhill, push your heels down and keep your weight over the rear axle
  • if you have a front basket, the weight will cause your handlebars to turn, so keep the weight evenly distributed
  • using rear baskets is best for heavy loads, since the weight will be over the rear axle
  • use a bungee cord to keep your items in your basket (they take flight when you hit a big bump!)
  • if you’re wary of thieves at red lights, a bungee cord over your items provides peace of mind
  • carry a bike tool (special wrench you can get at a bike shop, or a pair of pliers) in case you need to adjust anything when you’re out
  • get a good Kryptonite u-lock (thieves can’t cut through these)
  • “if it can be stolen, it will be stolen”–you can get special bolts for tires and seats, that thieves can’t undo

Safety Is Up to The Rider!

The most important thing to remember about cycling is that safety is up to the rider. The more you do to educate yourself and learn the rules of the road, the safer you will be. The best thing I did was take an Urban Cycling Class prior to ever riding on the streets. The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition offers a free classroom workshop, which basically taught me that the instincts I thought would protect me on the street would actually have the opposite effect and be the things most-likely to get me injured.

In the SF cycling class, I learned things like… cycling on the sidewalk is the best way to get hit by a car; riding as close to right as possible to let cars pass you is a great way to be injured, and there’s no need because cyclists have the right to use the full lane; breaking the rules of the road like the other cyclists out there is a great way to put yourself at risk, and you know better than that.

Do a web search to see if your city has any cycling courses.
San Francisco: http://www.sfbike.org/
Berkeley, Oakland, East Bay: http://www.ebbc.org/
Los Angeles: http://la-bike.org/
Long Beach: http://www.southbaybicyclecoalition.org/

Wear a Helmet!

The other thing I can’t stress highly enough is the proper use of a bike helmet. It doesn’t take much to hurt your brain, and giving it some extra protection can literally save your life. One thing I see on the streets all the time are riders who have helmets on, but they’re not worn properly so they’re kind of useless. Be sure to read the manufacturer’s instructions on how to fit your helmet properly, and look in a mirror to make sure you look just like the picture in their diagram.

If you’re not convinced, I’ll tell you the story of a friend who didn’t wear a bike helmet. He was around forty, riding his bike without a helmet in traffic. He didn’t get hit by a car, didn’t swerve to avoid anything scary–he did happen to randomly lose his balance, fall towards the pavement, and land on his forehead… which shattered into 400 pieces along with his eye sockets and nose. It took three years of invasive surgeries to remove all the bone fragments, several plastic surgeries to reconstruct his face, and he now has a plate where part of his skull should be. All of this literally would have been prevented by simply wearing a correctly-fitted bike helmet. See? Safety is up to you!

Bike Helmets
Helmets from Giro, Yakkay, Bern, Nutcase Super Solid, and Nuctcase Graphics.

Your Bike Should Fit YOU

Bike frames come in different shapes and styles, and they also come in different sizes. This is what you’ll want to figure out when trying out different bikes. There are several articles online with instructions on how to measure yourself and your bike frame. The gist of it is, you want to find out how long your limbs are, and see if your bike is able to be adjusted to fit you.

A friend of mine told me her struggle (which she didn’t even know was a struggle at the time) of riding to work, constantly feeling tired or uncomfortable at the end of her ride, along with not feeling completely in control while riding. She adjusted the seat and handlebars, but nothing seemed to help. She figured this was just the way it was supposed to be. Being 5’0″ tall, with a longer torso/shorter legs, someone suggested instead of an adult Small bike frame, she try a kid’s frame–after putting the slight feeling of shame aside, she tried it, and found the solution to all her cycling problems! She said the correctly-sized frame made all the difference.

Here are some good articles about how to measure your bike, and your body.
Article from Live Strong
Article from EBicycles
Frame Calculator, from EBicycles

Adjust Your Seat and Handlebars

Once you find the right shape and size bike for your shape and size, you’ll need to properly adjust your seat. When seated, with the pedal parallel to the floor, the ball of your foot should be directly under your knee. When your leg is extended with the pedal at it’s lowest point, your knee should not be locked.

After you’ve adjusted your seat, you can adjust the handlebars. When seated, your arms should be resting comfortably on the handlebars. You should not be stretching or scrunching your body. You can raise or lower the handlebars, and tilt them as needed.

Bike Maintanence

If you get a used bike, take it to a repair shop so a pro can give it the once-over. All cables should be inspected, gears should be checked and cleaned, chains checked, cleaned and oiled, brake pads inspected, tires inspected, brake and gear levers checked and adjusted. Once everything is good to go, there’s really very little you need to do to keep your bike up.

You definitely want to make sure that the brake levers don’t get too lose. If there’s ever less than a thumb’s space between the lever and the hand grip, take you bike in to have the cable tension adjusted. (If the cable tension is too loose, your brake pads won’t be able to press tight enough to actually work.)

You should always be sure you have the right amount of air in your tires. The PSI is written on the sidewall of your tire–over-inflating can burst the tire, under-inflating is going to cause extra friction against the pavement and make your ride torturously hard. You can probably eyeball your tires most of the time, but be sure to check and inflate about once a week.

You can do a quick check of your chain, and make sure it hasn’t fallen off the gears. You shouldn’t need to oil the chain, but if you do, just a teensy bit will do the trick.

In the Bike Safety Class I took, they taught us an acronym to use before getting on your bike–ABC Quick Check:

  • Air (correct PSI)
  • Brakes (squeeze the levers to make sure your brakes work!)
  • Chain (check to be sure your chain is on the track and not sagging, and that your gears are working)
  • Lift your bike up a few inches drop your bike against the ground and make sure there’s no un-expected “clunk”! Walking your bike off a curb is also a good way to listen for unusual clunks.

Cycling Accessories

Wear the right shoe.
I love wearing Vans to ride my bike. My bike has vintage plastic pedals, and the best way to keep my feet from slipping off is wearing shoes with super sticky soles. I’ve tried a couple different brands–Vans has been the best, and Keds has been the worst (the soles are rubber, but they’re slick/hard, not gummy like Vans). I’m sure any skate shoes will probably do the same trick as Vans.

Shoes for Biking
Shoes from Vans: 1. Espadrille Chukka Slim, 2. Printed Oxford Authentic Lo Pro, 3. Woven Stripe Slip-On Lo Pro, 4. Linen Rata Lo, Women, 5. Espadrille Slip-On Lo Pro, 6. Hemp E-Street, Women, 7. Micro Dot Authentic Lo Pro, 8. Leather Cedar, Women, 9. Canvas Authentic Lo Pro (comes in tons of colors), 10. Leopard Slip-On Lo Pro

Stuff to keep you comfy.
As you’re sitting and leaning forward on your bike, it’s inevitable that your shirt is going to go up, and your pants will go down leaving your lower-back exposed. Tying a sweater around your waist is a quick-fix if you don’t have a hip-length jacket to wear or long shirt to layer. I created a simple waist-wrap, and did a DIY blog post about it for ModCloth.com. The blog post also showed my simple DIY sweatband/kleenex holder.

Another favorite tip of mine is to wear a cotton bandanna over your ears–it prevents the wind from hurting (which can be especially bad on a cold morning), and helps fight helmet-hair!

DIY Bike Wristlet and Waist Wrap for ModCloth.com
Photo courtesy of ModCloth.com.

Protect your hands.
Chances are you’re not going to fall. But if you do, your palms are going to take the impact with the pavement. Biking gloves can be pretty horrendous looking, and you probably don’t need that level of cushion for your average quick city ride. Instead, find a pair of thin leather gloves. If you prefer them to be fingerless, since leather doesn’t fray you can just cut the fingers off. I use a pair of full-finger gloves I got from ModCloth.

Leather gloves for biking, from ModCloth
Full-finger leather gloves from ModCloth.com, and half-finger glovelettes from ModCloth.com.

Bicycles

A well-made bike can last forever. You can find vintage bikes on Craigslist or Ebay. It’s important not to be too swayed by appearance alone–old bikes are really heavy. If you plan on storing you bike on a wall hook, or taking it up lots of stairs, be sure you can lift it easily. My vintage bike is 35lbs, which is much different from modern 20lb bikes. There are a ton of vintage-looking bikes on the market now. If you plan to buy something brand new, here is a pretty comprehensive list to get you started!

Bikes from Public and Linus
Classic style bikes from Public and Linus. Tons of candy color flat high-shine enamel colors.

Bikes from Bowery Lane, Biria, and Gazelle
Simple urban bikes from Bowery Lane, bright colored classic “CitiBike” styles from Biria, and “Originals” collection Dutch bike styles from Gazelle.

Bikes from Papillionaire, Velorbis, Electra.
Customizable classic bikes from Austrailian company Papillionaire, classic Dutch-style bikes from Danish company Velorbis, cleaned-lined Ticino and flower-painted Amsterdam bike from Electra.

Bikes from Pashley and Bobbin
Classic and Dutch-style bikes in lots of great colors from British brands Pashley and Bobbin.

Bikes from Beg and Creme
Really unique-colored classic English bikes from UK companyBeg (PS, their website, is really well-designed and worth a look) and French company, Creme.

Bikes from Abici
Wide-array of really great colors of classic and Dutch-style bikes from Italian brand Abici. They even have a special Pantone edition, in a few great colors!

Bikes from Schwinn, Windsor and Mercier
Super-affordable (all are under $200!) classic bikes from Schwinn, low-priced Windsor Kensington 8, Mercier Elle City, and Windsor Oxford Deluxe from reliable online retailer Bikes Direct.

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