Good things come on cycles.

The bicycle is the vehicle for rational man, the exemplar of sensible transportation in a world of limited resources. Fossil fuels are burned only in manufacture; the bike runs on a variety of renewable fuels, getting over thirty miles to a peanut butter sandwich and a glass of milk. None of God’s creatures can approach the energy-efficiency of a human riding a bicycle on a smooth surface. The horse comes the closest but is only one fifth as efficient (see M. G. Bekker, Theory of Land Locomotion). The bicycle has the highest payload-to-weight ratio of all man’s machines: a 26-pound cycle easily carries a 150-pound rider, for a ratio of 5.8. By comparison, four people carpooling in a VW Beetle achieve a ratio of 0.2 – the automobile uses most of its power to move itself. The cycle is light and maneuverable and requires little parking space. It is the reasonable way to travel.

The bicycle is the vehicle for rational man, but the cyclist is not rational man. He is an enthusiast. The Greek root of the word “enthusiast” means “having a god within,” and the cyclist is indeed a person possessed. He will get up at six to ride no place in particular- not very energy-efficient, since the net work performed on a round trip is zero. He will commute by bike, narrowly escaping death in rush-hour auto traffic, arriving rain-drenched or sweat-soaked. Convinced he has found the light after years of darkness, the cyclist will proselytize, becoming an acute annoyance to his friends. The cyclist is crazy about bicycles.

A fine madness: getting started.

You can roll down the road to cyclomania innocently enough on a $150 ten-speed or a $110 three-speed. If this seems pretty cheap for a ruling passion, don’t worry; you can always trade up.

Buy your bike from a bicycle dealer, not a department store or discount house. The bike dealer has a stake in your enjoyment of cycling: Once you’re hooked, you’ll be back for accessories, tools, clothing and more bicycles. Department store machines often suffer from warped wheels, slack cables, and brakes that stop the bike about as well as dragging your foot. They are assembled by the guys who put together lawn chairs and swingsets, who don’t have the skills or tools to set up a bike properly. Some stores give a $10 discount if you buy a bike unassembled. This is a bargain only for the mechanically skilled; if you end up letting a bike shop take over the assembly job, it’ll cost you at least $20.

The three major brands sold around Dallas are Moto-becane (French), Raleigh (British), and Schwinn (American). Actually, only the frames are French, British, and American – almost all the components are Japanese. Since all the bikes in a given price range are built from pretty much the same components, comparison shopping is an easy job. A few Japanese companies – Shimano, Dia-compe, Suntour – have sewed up the component market for bikes under $500. But given current monetary trends, they may soon be unable to compete with the European component makers (Simplex. Huret, Weinmann, Mafac) who dominated the market eight years ago. Right now, save-the-whalers boycotting Japanese goods can buy Peugeot, the only all-European bike around.

Step one in choosing a bike is to decide what gearing you want. It’s best to go with a multi-speed setup. One-speeds tend to be very heavy (40 pounds and up) and have a lot of friction in the rear hub. That leaves a choice between three speeds (hub gearing) and five or ten speeds (de-railleur gearing). The three-speed gear mechanism is sealed inside the rear hub, out of the weather and safe from harm should the bike fall over. But its range is limited: Low gear is only 56 percent of high. Derailleur gears, in which the changer moves the chain (derails it) from one sprocket to another, offer a tremendous range: 95 inches of travel per pedal revolution in low for toiling up a hill, 330 for streaking down the other side.

In addition, the derailleur arrangement loses less than half as much power to friction as does the three-speed. But the de-railleur mechanism is vulnerable, hang-ing outside the hub, and requires more skill to operate, as shifting is done by feel: You must fiddle with the shift lever until the gears engage properly, instead of just flipping it to a set position as in three-speed operation.

The most important consideration in buying a bike is to get a properly sized frame. The bike is an extension of your body, and it had better fit. If a frame fits,! you should be able to straddle it, standing i flatfooted, and lift the front wheel a cou-ple of inches without causing yourself undue pain. Don’t get a bike that’s too small, either- though the seat height is adjustable, you want the bike to be long enough for you to stretch out comfortably reaching for the handlebars.

Most ten-speeds are built in the “racer” configuration, with dropped handlebars and narrow seat. This puts the rider in the most efficient position for cutting through wind and applying arm and torso muscles to pedaling. People who are used to this position swear that it is comfortable. If you’d rather not endure the discomfort of getting used to the racer’s pose, and are not too concerned about aerodynamic and mechanical efficiency, you can get a ten-speed set up with upright handlebars at no extra cost.

The seats on most inexpensive ten-speeds do little besides keep you off the seat post. If you plan to ride your bike more than five miles at a stretch, you should consider spending an extra $15 to $20 for a quality seat like Brooks, Cool Gear, Avocet, or Selle Milano. The last three are available in women’s models. The seat is the part of your bike that you should upgrade first – it’s the part you’ll get to know best.

To keep your bike running smoothly you must adhere to a maintenance schedule. The bare minimum is to take care of tire pressure and chain lubrication. Check pressure every two weeks (with a gauge, not with your thumb); recommended pressure is printed on the tire (usually 70 p.s.i.). It’s best to get a hand pump ($8), since service stations run 200 p.s.i. in their air lines, which can blow out a bike tire in about three seconds. Lubricate the chain once a month. Ten- or twenty-weight machine oil (Schwinn or Sturmey-Archer oil) works fine, but there are special aerosol chain lubes that don’t attract as much dirt.

As you get a bit more involved with your bike, you might want to attend to minor matters such as brake and gear cable adjustments yourself, rather than pay the going shop rate of a dollar for five minutes’ work. Richard’s Bicycle Book, by Richard Ballantine, and Anybody’s Bike Book, by Tom Cuthbertson, are good maintenance guides, with extensive discussions of how the various bits of equipment work. Both books offer plenty of advice for bike buyers, too.

After a few afternoons of cruising around your neighborhood, you’ll be ready to stretch out a bit. There’s a network of bike routes throughout the city (call 670-4029 for maps), and the Parks and Recreation Department maintains bike trails around White Rock Lake, Bachman Lake, and Kiest Park. One weekend soon you’ll find yourself retiring early Saturday night so that you can do twenty miles around White Rock before breakfast. Then you’ll know you’re hooked.

The magnificent obsession: moving up.

Six o’clock Sunday morning. You open an eye, think briefly about forgetting the whole thing, but finally obey the call of the open road. You’ll be doing twenty miles, so you pull on a pair of wool cycling shorts with chamois-lined crotch – like riding on a cloud, at least compared to cutoffs. Locate sneakers, T-shirt, and sweater; check the tire pressure. You’re out the door by 6:30. You stay in low gears on the ride to the lake, spinning easily to warm up your legs. You are passed by a Ferrari, which you regard with pity and contempt.

At the lake you gradually pick up speed until you’re spinning along at 25 kph. Ninety minutes of this should be enough exercise for anyone. Then you’re startled by a clatter of upshifting derailleurs and the sudden shout, “On your left!” A column of racers on a training ride flashes by at half again your speed. If only your bike were as light as theirs, you think, you’d show them a thing or two.

It’s time to trade up.

It won’t make you a champion athlete to buy a bike just like the top European pros ride, but you’ll have the satisfaction of owning a beautiful piece of machinery – and knowing there’s nothing holding you back now but yourself.

Price varies inversely with weight. A $150 bike weighs in at 29 to 33 pounds. To shed 5 pounds, you’ll spend another $125; the next 3-pound reduction costs $250. It would be more reasonable (and free) for most riders to trim a few pounds from their own frames – but we’re not talking about reasonable people.

The first step up, from $150 to around $300, offers a significant improvement in bicycle performance. The wheels are made much lighter, with aluminum alloy instead of steel rims. Because accelerating rotational motion requires more energy than accelerating linear motion, reducing the weight of the wheels makes the bike feel much livelier than taking the same amount of weight off the frame.

The frame itself is lightened, made from thin-walled tubing of chrome-molybdenum or manganese-molybdenum steel, instead of the carbon steel used in the cheaper frames. (Look for decals that say Columbus, Vitus, 4130, or Reynolds 531.) The main frame tubes are butted: The tube wall is thinner in the middle than at the ends, where stress is greater. Frames of these materials are hand brazed or (better) silver soldered. These processes join the metals at much lower temperatures than does arc welding, so the metal is not weakened by excessive heating.

As bikes go up in price, hub and crank bearings get smoother. The average human can put out only about 75 watts (0.1 hp) over the long haul, so a little bit of friction in the drive train is a big drag on the rider.

Until recently, the only way to reduce friction where the tire meets the road was to fit expensive tubular tires. The tubular tire casing is sewn up around an extremely light tube and the tire is glued to a special rim. Rolling resistance is minimized because the tire area in contact with the road is very small. Tubulars are expensive – twenty dollars per tire and up -and difficult to repair. Two years agoMichelin introduced a lightweight, high-pressure (90 p.s.i.), standard tire-tubecombination which is almost as light andhas as small a contact patch as a tubular,but is much more durable and easy to repair. Many $300 bikes feature high-pressure tires by Michelin, National or Schwinn.

If you want to spend much more than$300 on a bike, you’ll have a hard timejustifying it to yourself in terms of weightand friction. Another $200 just doesn’tbuy you very much more performancepotential. What a $500 bicycle does haveis lots of class. Components (ShimanoDura-Ace or – in the $700 range – Cam-pagnolo) are beautifully finished andwork very smoothly. To the appreciativeeye, a Schwinn Paramount has all thesnob appeal of a Porsche 91 ISC, at atwentieth the price. Of course, you don’tdare leave a machine like that unattended while you’re running an errand. Butremember, you can get a nice used three-speed for $75.


Keep me up to date on the latest happenings and all that D Magazine has to offer.