Sunday, July 8, 2012

Why Hybrids?

Our family's 2010 bicycle tour with Summer Feet was a wonderful experience which I described in my previous post. The one thing we were less than happy with was the bicycles provided by Summer Feet. I am going to spend this whole post dwelling on this one issue which was the only negative aspect of the trip.  Please don't give this undue weight, our overall evaluation of the trip was A+. I am dwelling on this one point so much  because I find it so confusing and because it is likely to significantly change our behavior in the future.

Summer Feet provides bicycles at no cost for some of their tours, including the one we took, and rents bikes for others.  If you rent a bike from them, you have the option of a road bike or a hybrid bike.  Because one day of our itinerary was ridden on packed dirt roads, they provided hybrid bikes for our tour.  Although there was no charge for the bikes, we were free to bring our own if we preferred, and about a third of the people on the trip did so.  We opted to use their provided bikes to avoid the inconvenience and expense of shipping our bikes from Texas to Maine and back.

The bike my older son rode, a Trek

The bikes Summer Feet provided were a mix of brands, but my impression is that they were good quality bike shop bikes including such brands as Trek.  (In fact, every client bike I could identify in my photos was a Trek.) Summer Feet does their own maintenance and the bikes were very well maintained; the brakes and gears worked flawlessly, for example. Not everyone had problems with the bike.  In our family, our two sons thought they were "fine", I found mine awkward but usable, and my wife was able to complete the trip but found the bike a significant drawback and was somewhat traumatized by the experience.  Outside our family, most people didn't comment on their bikes one way or another (nor did we, outside our family), but one person finally gave up the trip in tears, unable to use the bike at all.  Norm, the owner of Summer Feet, was one of our guides and so was well aware of what was going on, he runs a class operation and everything he provided was first rate, I am sure this was an outcome he did not want at all, but despite all that, it happened.

The bike my younger son rode, another Trek

So what was the problem?  In short, the bikes Summer Feet provided had skittish handling characteristics.  On the first day of riding, which included some of the busier roads we travelled, my wife fell off her bike into traffic.  The drivers were all cautious and were able to stop so no physical harm was done, but she was badly shaken and asked that the toe clips that she had requested on her bike be replaced with flat pedals, which Summer Feet cheerfully and quickly did. This helped, as she no longer felt that she was trapped if she fell, but she was nervous for the rest of the trip and this unavoidably meant she had less fun.  She is a somewhat nervous rider, but reasonably experienced; she and I have ridden a lot of miles together and so I don't think it would be at all reasonable to suggest that this trip was too ambitious for her (and nobody suggested that). The person who ultimately abandoned the trip fell repeatedly, ended up taking the sag wagon home on multiple days before giving up entirely. I flatter myself that I am a pretty competent cyclist.  However, I felt like I needed to keep a death grip on the handlebars of the bike and, when I ascended Cadillac Mountain, was significantly hindered because I was not able to stand on the bike to climb, I had to remain seated to keep control.  Clearly different people were affected to differing degrees by this problem as evidenced by the different experiences within our family.  It is quite possible that the Summer Feet staff simply don't experience the problem so cannot easily correct it.  Despite these qualifications, I nonetheless cannot accept that this "high failure rate" of the rider-bike combination is normal or acceptible.

A lady's bike, also a Trek

What caused the problem?  I certainly don't know.  While on the trip, I blamed it on the style of bike.  I felt like if we had ridden road bikes instead of hybrid bikes, we wouldn't have had this problem.  I shared my opinion with Norm, probably excessively.  Norm's position was that road bikes were inappropriate for the dirt trails included on this trip.  However, one couple who brought their own bikes brought "cyclocross bikes"; a Surly Crosscheck and an Bianchi Volpe. "Cyclocross bikes" is in quotes because these are not really bikes used by cyclocross racers, but medium priced general purpose bikes built with many of the characteristics of a true cyclocross bike, road bikes with high bottom brackets, fatter tires, and ruggeder construction.  These are the kind of bike my wife and I own (Surly Crosschecks).  Their tires are as wide as a hybrid bike but they handle like a road bikes and are perfect for good quality dirt roads and trails.  Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect Summer Feet to offer cyclocross bikes as an third option, but I wonder if they offered them, could they go from offering two kinds of bikes to one? However, this begs the question: is this a generic problem with hybrid bikes?  Would Trek, for example, deliberately sell a kind of bike that handles badly?

I don't have answers to any of these questions, but here are some possibilities I have come up with:
1) Hybrid bikes don't really handle badly, just differently, and I am not used to how they handle.  I am skeptical of this answer given that I rode on this bike for five days running. I would have thought that was enough time to at least start to get used to its handling.
2) Hybrid bikes are designed for different situations than what we used them for, and their handling is appropriate for their intended use.  I might buy this argument for mountain bikes, but by definition hybrid bikes are supposed to be a compromise.  I feel this is a bad compromise indeed if this is how they handle on the road.
3) Hybrid bikes are the least expensive of bike shop bikes.  Perhaps my expectations of them were too high; for this price maybe you get bad handling.
4) The problem was not with the bikes, but with the fit.  Given the challenge of fitting a number of customers from a limited stock of bicycles, Summer Feet were able to get the seat height right for everyone, but in some cases at the expense of the overall configuration of the bike, leading to bad handling.  This would explain why some people were more affected by this problem than others.
5) There was more variability between the bikes than I realized; some of the bikes were badly designed and rode poorly.  (I do not, at this point, recall the brand of bike I rode.)  This would also explain the variability of experience.
6) It was the riders and not the bikes that were the problem.  I am only certain of three people out of the approximately fifteen on the trip who were less than happy with their bikes.  (On the other hand, four or five people brought their own bikes, and I suspect more were unhappy than acknowledged it publicly.)  This seems unlikely to me, but even if true, the fact remains that my wife and I can comfortably ride many miles so long as we have the "right" bike, so at worst, it is a "rider plus bike" issue.

The one thing we did learn with certainty from this trips is that choice of bike matters a lot in terms of how much fun we have on a ride.  Regardless of the cause, I doubt that we would ever again invest this heavily in a trip and use bicycles other than our own.  As I have mentioned in previous posts, my wife and I are thinking about our next bicycles, and we are now thinking that S&S couplers and the paraphernalia to go with them to allow us to check our bikes on airplanes at reasonable cost are a "must have" feature.

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