Revisiting the idea of practical bikes in the year 2022

Tony Hunt in St. Paul, 2016

Last week I was alerted to a new blog, The Complete Bicycle. I’ve known its author, Tony, for several years, meeting up with him in St. Paul when I was there in 2016. He elaborates on “What is a Complete Bicycle?” in this blog post here.

For me, a complete bike is one that I can grab and go with minimal to no thought for what I need to accomplish on a given ride because it is equipped to do what I often need to do. It is designed to be used every day. The other day I decided on a whim to stop by Trader Joe’s after work to grab a few items. I was able to do it because I have a bike designed for the task. As summer turns to fall the mornings are going to stay darker later. Whether it is dark or not when I hop on to go to work does not enter into my mind because my lights are always ready to go. The other day it rained while I was at work and I didn’t know it was supposed to. Though the streets were soaked and puddled, I was perfectly dry when I got home because weather changes quickly in Minnesota and my bike is equipped for that as well.

Tony Hunt, The Complete Bicycle

This got me thinking again about the subject of Practical Bikes. I’ve written about it in 2016 and again in 2019. Another three years have passed, so time to talk about it again.

And from my perspective, things haven’t gotten any better over the past three years, even with a couple years of pandemic to increase bicycle sales. Finding “all dressed” bikes is hard. We’ve got the usual Linuses, Publics, and Breezers. Electra makes a few non-cruiser style bikes that can fit the bill, like the Loft 7i. None of these bikes come with integrated dynamo lighting, though Breezer used to. Civia, QBP’s city-oriented make, died a couple years ago. You can get a Dutch Workcycles bike, which are great, but designed for a nation where hills don’t exist. 1 You might have a local shop that imports some exotic city bikes, like Clever Cycles does here in Portland.

But that’s a pretty slim list when there are many, many more brands out there. I’m sure the major manufactures, the Treks/Giants/Cannondales of the world, after half-hearted attempts to build city bikes for the American market, will tell you that “there aren’t people looking for these kinds of bikes.” Explain that to Jim Grey, who has been looking for “a modern version of the traditional 3-speed” to replace his tired mid-80’s made-in-Taiwan-by-Giant Schwinn Collegiate. There are people out there that want these kinds of bikes. But when your marketing pumps the latest in road/mountain/”gravel” and the salespeople and mechanics in your dealer network turn their noses up at anything that’s not road/mountain/”gravel”, of course you are not going to connect with them. 2

And at this point, I don’t know what can be done about it. Let’s face it: practical bikes are boring. They don’t feature “the latest and greatest”, they feature the tried and true. You can’t do product spreads of people “shredding the gnar” on a Dutch-inspired city bike. The magazines that would feature these bikes in tasteful urban spreads, the Momentums and the Bicycle Times, are gone. Many of the bloggers who were pushing this aesthetic have gone away, leaving a few stalwarts like myself to keep the torch burning. The fact that there is a new blog about this stuff honestly astonishes me! 3

And let’s face another fact: The current bikes that do check off all the boxes, the ones that have racks, fenders, chainguards, integrated lighting, and the like, are all electric. This is where much of the market is going. The aesthetics may be hit and miss, but I’m sure that over the next few years, as the technology improves, we’ll be seeing more e-bikes that look good. Yes, it would be nice to see some non e-bikes that have all the bells and whistles, but e-bikes are going to dominate from here on out.

But there is one non e-bike that you can find that is “all dressed” and that is Brompton. Many Bromptons come with lights, racks, and fenders. You’re not going to be able to load them the same way you might do to a “big” bike, but I’ve found that the convenience of a folding bike trumps a lot of things.

I don’t give up hope for more non electric practical bikes. But unless the big movers are convinced there’s a market, any positive movement we’ll see is going to be from smaller companies and/or imported brands. Until then, I’ll be happily riding my Brompton–and my Raleigh Superbe!

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1 Yes, geography nerds, remind me about the small section of low hills in the southeastern corner. But they are still a small part of a small country.

2 Yet these makers will create all-dressed city bikes in markets that like them, like the aluminum Trek “loop-frame” for the Dutch market that’s mentioned in this 2011 post.

3 Lovely Bicycle, probably the person who exemplified the Practical Bike Blog Revolution, stopped posting several years ago. But she’s been posting again about photography (including film!) on her new blog–and under her real name!

16 thoughts on “Revisiting the idea of practical bikes in the year 2022

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  1. Believe it or not, I am in Denmark right now. I arrived last Tuesday and will leave tomorrow. The hotel where I’m staying has a bunch of bikes available to borrow. I’ve been riding this black three speed with a rack. It is exactly the kind of bike I want to own. I’d add a mustache handlebar (rather than the straight one on it) and a 7-speed hub would be extra nice. But otherwise, this is it. Bikes like this one are absolutely, positively everywhere here!

    1. Oh, I believe you are in Denmark. (I do read your newsletter, ya know. 😉 ) It must be amazing to come from a country of “we can’t have practical bikes” and find yourself in one awash in them! Are you tempted to bring one back?

      1. Margaret and I did talk about it! In the end, we didn’t because time was running short. Then at the airport in Denmark we learned that the plane wouldn’t take bikes as cargo anyway; too small.

  2. I had some medical issues in 2019, right before the global pandemic, which required high-dose steroids for treatment. I gained weight. Then the pandemic hit, and after two years of being locked inside, I became so inactive that I gained 25 pounds.

    Inspired by a few of Jim’s bicycle+camera blog posts, I attempted to fix the issue this summer. I thought, “It would be great to ride a bicycle to nearby towns, stop for a bite, and maybe photograph some bicycles“.

    So I dusted off my daughter’s bicycle and tried to ride around my neighbourhood. I didn’t get too far. My55-year-old knees are shit. After ten minutes on the bike, I can barely move them.

    I worked from home two days a week pre-pandemic, but I have worked remotely since March 2020. With a few exceptions, my 16-year-old Honda Accord EX V6-L has sat in the garage all this time. A few weeks ago, I sold it. On Sunday, I used the money from that sale to purchase a “LECTRIC XPremoum” electric bicycle.

  3. On October 17,2009 I bought a Raleigh Mojave 2.0 mountain bike from Big Shark. I just walked in and said I would like to buy a bike. The store employee picked one out and it’s been a joy ever since. “Wheels” doesn’t have any bells and whistles but man oh man he always gets me to where I need to go. We’ve been out in all types of weather conditions, blazing hot sun, soaking rain,and ice covered streets. Whether it’s a trip to the pharmacy or the store my bike has always delivered. I spare no expense whenever a tune up is needed or the occasional flat needs fixing. I even take the time to clean Wheels and do the maintenance myself. I love my bike like people love their cars. Happy riding. 🚴‍♂️

  4. Of course I agree that a folding bicycle is a “complete bike” or practical bike if equipped with fenders, racks, and large enough capacity for hauling stuff. For grocery getting it’s limited. However, a less expensive option is a 1980-1990s old style mountain bike with panniers and basket – more practical for most people.

    1. I do love me an old MTB converted for city use. And it can be cheaper than a folding bike. But I’m talking about options that come “all dressed” from the bike shop. We need more of these. While an old mountain bike can be dressed up to be practical, you have to know what you want and know how to get there. If you are just someone who wants a practical bike and haven’t been geeking out about things, you’ll be lost.

      It would be nice to see more places create these “all dressed” bikes out of old MTBs and hybrids. But there’s probably not a lot of profit in it. There used to be a place out in Bend, J. Livingston, that used to do just that. But they shut down awhile back.

      1. Retrospec, Dahon, State Bicycle Co, Public Bikes all offer racks and fenders. You need to take Dynamo lighting out of the equation. Rechargeable lights are excellent these days, more versatile, and brighter. Our local Shop, Old Spokes Home, will set up an old MB with racks and fenders for around 500.

        1. Thanks for some more options, though I did mention Public in the post above. And it’s nice that Old Spokes will dress up an old MTB. Of course, you need that old MTB first, which is another step, another barrier for someone who might not know what they want/need to do.

          And while battery-powered lights have definitely improved over the years, I am not taking dynamo lighting out of the equation. There needs to be more of this, not less. Having integrated lighting that’s always there (like in a car!) is heaps better than having to charge lights on a regular basis. (And forgetting that your lights are still on the charger at home, when you are out riding and it’s getting dark…)

  5. Great topic, and great blog recommendation. One of the things which inspired me to pare down to the minimum on bikes (and I’m getting closer!) was listening to Guthrie on the Sprocket Podcast. Last I heard, he does more riding than I could ever do, on a single touring bike (maybe also a Uni?). Gravel ride? Just swap out the tires. Anyway, the concept is solid, and I’m glad to follow along.

    1. Thanks! Though this post isn’t really about bicycle minimalism. I agree that you don’t need to have a lot of bikes, as long as your bikes do what you need them to.

      But I’m no one-bike person, and the idea really doesn’t appeal to me. As someone who used to exclusively bike commute, having only one bike means that if that bike has a mechanical or worse, gets stolen, it means having to take transit instead, and then a scramble to find a replacement bike. If one can afford to have two or more bikes, and one has the space, it’s okay to have multiple bikes. Just don’t let the bikes own you!

  6. I have this habit of forgetting to circle around to my point. What I was feeling when I wrote that was having a more complete bike (for me) allows me to have less bikes to do the same things. I’ve already laid out why I want to do that, but to update, I’m getting closer, and am happier for it. It’s working for me. In support of having multiple bikes, On Saturday evening, I was airing up the Brompton to take to the monthly Hartford Bike Party we have now, and ripped the valve stem out of the tube. Can’t patch that, and I didn’t have a spare tube. So I brought the Dummy. Overkill to be sure, but I made the ride!

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