We are often asked, by friends or customers, for advice about what kind of bike they should be riding. The answer to that question is dependent on who it is that is asking and what it is that they want their bicycle to do for them. However, it is not as complicated as most would have you believe. We believe that there is a single, simple answer to this question.
When most people begin to search for a new bike, they are quickly bombarded with many different categories and subcategories of bicycles, new technologies that are “revolutionary” and “necessary”, information about frame materials and geometry, and to top it off every manufacturer will tell you that they offer the best options.
To say the least, it is a daunting and confusing task to discern your bicycle needs when starting from this point. None of that information is bad and having options is fantastic. The problem is, figuring out which one bike is going to be the right one for you.
Our answer to the question?
The right bicycle for you is the bicycle that you enjoy riding.
That’s it. Bikes are remarkably versatile and capable. Unless you are racing at a high level, the rule should be: ride the bike that you want to ride.
Occasionally when people notice that we ride multiple bikes throughout a week or a month, they will ask, why did you pick that particular bike today? There can be many reasons which I’d like to discuss here for the sake of anyone who has ever wondered, why does one person need multiple bicycles. The most common and obvious scenario would be someone who likes road biking or commuting and also enjoys aggressive mountain biking. Sitting side by side, that person’s bicycles would be clearly different and one would easily discern that they have different uses.
Taking a closer look at the bicycles we ride for different situations may help to illustrate this point. We have very different preferences, in general, and on occasion, we will each ride a different style bike on the same ride.
I could ride any of my bikes on gravel but The Soma Wolverine is my bike of choice for gravel rides. When I built this bike, I chose the frame and fork mostly for the tire clearance and steel construction. While heavier than other frame materials, steel offers affordability and durability along with a comfortable ride due to its relative compliance or flexibility. I also wanted plenty of tire clearance because larger tires offer more cushion and traction. Tire size is relative but in this case I refer to the larger end of a range typically used for gravel which I will say is anywhere from 32mm to 45mm wide. The Wolverine currently wears 43mm tires with small-knobbed Gravel Kings. I’ve tried many iterations of this bike and may try a few more but it’s current form is a culmination of the many things I’ve learned through experimentation.
Most often, I ride an All-City Spacehorse with rim brakes. It’s a steel-framed, light touring bike, with a classic road bike vibe. It is usually wearing 35mm, nearly slick tires (most often Panaracer Paselas but I just acquired some nice orange Gravel Kings). The slightly narrower tire gives the bike a bit more zing on pavement and is wide enough to handle gravel without issue. I prefer two front chainrings and friction-only downtube shifters. 1x drivetrains are all the rage and they are rad. However, since I do enjoy road rides as well, I like to have the high gears that you miss out on with a smaller front chainring. This bike is a fantastic bike for me. It suits my abilities and my riding style. Like Jason’s Wolverine, I found this setup through a good amount of fiddling.
I have also been known to ride my skinny-tire shod road bikes on gravel as well. I firmly believe that whatever bike you happen to be riding when you turn onto a gravel road, is a gravel bike.
Single Track or other MTB Trails:
While I will occasionally get a bit rowdy on the trails, my mountain bike is rather subdued. It is a Surly Karate Monkey with no suspension (a.k.a. fully rigid) and it has relatively narrow swept-back Jones H-bar handlebars. High volume production bicycles typically found in the mountain bike section of most shops across the country feature at least some suspension and wide flat handlebars. These bikes have features that make them perfect for narrow, twisting singletrack perhaps with some jumps or drops. But because I use my mountain bike for other things more often, like commuting in snow or off-road bike camping, I built it to be more comfortable and capable for those situations. It is still capable of handling aggressive off-road riding but that is not it’s main job.
I am more of a Hillibike man than a mountain bike man. Jason is the real mountain biker, he can do tricks and stuff. However, I love to ride in the woods, I just tend to go slower and stop to look at birds more frequently than most. I ride a 1992 Bridgestone MB-2, rattle-canned a nice eggplant color. It has 2.2” knobby tires and nice sweepy back bars (Nitto Albatross) that make it comfy as all get out. all the parts are old and wonderful. I ride the same trails that other folks ride on their squishy full-suspension MTBs, but at a more meandering and contemplative pace, which I find delightful.
Commuting and City Bike paths:
My favorite bike to ride across town, on paths, and through neighborhoods is a single-speed Surly Straggler which I built over the past year. I keep it unencumbered with no racks or bags to keep it light, fast, and agile. With only one gear, there are fewer adjustments to be made and fewer components at risk if I fail to keep the rubber side down. The best part about a single-speed is the absence of chain slap (sound of the chain bouncing and hitting the frame) which means I can hear the birds better.
My commuter/city bike is also a single speed. It is more “Road Bike” than Jason’s. I have tinkered with the setup constantly since I started riding it. This spring I finally went back to my favorite handlebars and I just added a basket in November. It is pretty great at rambling through town. It is low maintenance with its single-speed drivetrain and just zippy enough so that I can pretend I am riding a grand tour time trial when running late for work. Plus between the voluminous saddlebag and the basket, I can carry all of my things. It also has what I call, character.
To be truthful, all of the bicycles I have mentioned do quite a bit of commuting depending on my mood. They also all do everything else too. I have ridden my Singlespeed road bike through the woods and on gravel rides, and I have taken my mountain bike all over on paved roads as well. Because they are all the “right” bike.
If you are looking for a bike, our advice is to ride a bunch of them and pick the one you like best and not worry if it is the one that anyone else says you should have. Then over time, tweak it and make it fit you and the way you ride better. If you have any questions about how to do this, please let us know.
– Sam & Jason