The Reluctant Roadbike Commuter

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When I moved to rural Ireland, lots of people said (or wrote) to me some equivalent of: Aha! There’s no way you will continue commuting on an upright step-through bike. Those distances, those hills, those wind speeds? A roadbike will be more efficient and faster.

And they weren’t wrong about those factors posing a challenge for plain-clothed transport cycling, as I had hitherto known it. However, I resisted the switch. Not out of principle. But because for transport, I genuinely feel more comfortable, more relaxed, more at ease, on an upright step-through bicycle – pedaling at moderate speeds, wearing my street clothes and shoes, arriving at my destination refreshed but not bedraggled.

And so, despite the challenges of my new environment, I never changed my ways. And three and a half years later I still mostly commute on upright step-throughs. There are, however, times when even I must concede this is not a suitable option. When my destination, for instance, lies over a mountain and time is of the essence. Or the wind is so strong, that an upright bike would mean traveling at walking speed. Or even when I want to get some exercise and do not have the time to cycle for transport and sport as separate activities.

On those occasions, I do use a roadbike to get around. And while it’s not exactly ideal, I try to make the best of it. And as I rarely discuss this particular topic, today I thought I’d share my setup with you here.

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Setting up a roadbike for commuting is not in itself a problem, even for a backpack-hater such as myself. As my freelance work involves mostly writing, taking photos, and meeting with people regarding both of those things, in simplest terms I need the bike to carry my laptop and camera. This can be easily achieved by attaching some cycling luggage. The easiest candidate in my stable is Alice, as she is permanently fitted with full mudguards and a front rack.

In commuter mode, I affix onto Alice a handlebar bag, a saddlebag, front and rear lights, and a stainless steel water bottle.

Not so much because of the bags, as because of what is in them, in this state Alice weights at least 30lb, yet remains a fast performance bike – ready to deliver me to and from my destination with minimal struggle.

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More complicated is figuring out what to wear for this style of commuting. If I’m planning on meeting with people, or on sitting indoors for any length of time, I cannot arrive in all-out cycling gear. I know there are cyclists who find this doable, and I am genuinely glad it works for them. But for me it’s uncomfortable, both physically and mentally, to spend the day in roadcycling apparel. Equally uncomfortable is riding a roadbike in street clothes, especially when distance and hills are involved. In a leaned-over position, jackets and tops start to pull at the seams; waistbands dig into tummy fat. Overall, ‘normal’ clothing begins to feel too fluttery and bulky to me once a roadbike gets involved.

My compromise outfit aims for a happy medium. I wear padded shorts, with stretchy leggings over them. A base layer on top, with a long tunic over that. This tunic – a genius garment from Ibex – is a heavyweight jersey knit that nearly resembles a tweedy jacket-like thing, features a 2-way zipper, and is long and drapey enough to disguise the unsightly bulge of my padded shorts.

Naturally, all of this is wool. As are my socks, underwear, neck warmer, and inevitable hat. From some angles (sadly, not from the one photographed!), this outfit almost passes for presentable. Except of course for those clipless shoes…

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Not to worry though, as I can bring my walking shoes, or boots, along in one of the bags (see also: Hysteria and the Cyclist’s Wardrobe). Today they are in the Berthoud handlebar bag (size Small). However, normally that space would be occupied by a massive camera and lens(es), so the shoes would go in the back.

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For the rear I use a Dill Pickle saddlebag, size Large, made extra-wide for me on request to accommodate my 13″ laptop inside a padded sleeve. This bag takes only a couple of minutes to attach/detach, and does not require a support rack. It can turn any bike into a laptop-toting commuter!

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The interior can swallow a 13″ laptop easily, and then some, with room for shoes to spare. I can even stuff some random food items in there in addition, if I feel like stopping by the shop on the way home.

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The Lezyne lights I use these days (see review here) are reassuringly bright and easy to share between bikes.

On Alice, which was previously fitted with a generator hub that has since been removed (needs servicing), I thought I would miss the lack of generator lighting and be quite annoyed to use these clip-on lights. However, in practice it has not been an issue. And miraculously, the headlight beam actually clears my handlebar bag.

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In the winter, I will also wear the dreaded ‘puffy jacket.’ Although normally I am no lover of the aforementioned garment, it is a jacket that is both warm enough to accommodate the sort of extreme temperature dips we can get here in the course of the day, and compact enough to shove into an already-stuffed handlebar bag should its services not be required.
Overall, I stay comfortable, warm, dry. I have all the stuff I need for work. I look not great but okay. And even as I long for the step-through frame, the upright posture and the joys of a long tweed coat, I have to admit that the roadbike’s speed and position are assets in difficult riding conditions.
I’m a reluctant roadbike commuter. But when push comes to shove, a grateful one. 

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