Photo by Chris Bruntlett
Melissa Bruntlett Papillionaire
For more than two years now I have been happily riding an upright, step-through bicycle, also known as a city bike, or a Dutch-style bike. Prior to this, I could be found on a heavy mountain bike, complete with 21 speeds, shocks, and extremely straight handle bars. It was a good bike and it got the job done, but after spending years hunched forward and putting a lot of strain on my wrists, shoulders, and back, riding my bike was becoming less and less enjoyable. So, when I saw images of people riding upright on beautifully sleek bicycles on the Cycle Chic photo blogs around the world, making the switch was a no-brainer.
Living in an area where at least three-quarters of my fellow riders are on road bikes, hybrid commuters, and the occasional mountain bike, when I'm out on my city bike I tend to stand out. Even more so when I'm on a family ride, riding alongside my husband and daughter on their upright bikes. However, instead of feeling like an outsider, I feel more like I'm holding onto this big secret that has yet to be revealed to most people. That secret? Riding an upright bike is a pretty spectacular experience.
It happens almost every day that I'm out riding where someone, a friend or a complete stranger, will compliment me on my bike, most notably on its beauty. I enjoy the compliments when I’m out riding, but I can't help wondering, "Why don't more people choose to ride upright bicycles?" With all the adulation, one would think that there would be an increase in the number of people out there on city bikes. Still, I'm one of the few people I know who chooses to ride upright. Perhaps it's just a lack of education about what upright bikes have to offer. So here it is, let me share with you the joy of riding a city bike, and why it just may be the bike for you!
My love for city bikes has only increased now that I'm the happy owner of a shiny, new, red Papillionaire Sommer. With a durable steel step-through frame and comfortable upright riding position, even though it weighs 31pounds (14 kg) and has 3 speeds, I find it easy to ride around, even along more hilly streets. Included on the Papillionaire are pretty standard features that are found on most practical city bikes, or should be: matching fenders, chainguard, and rear rack. These features keep me grease and mud free while also being easily adaptable to carrying groceries or anything else I pick up while on errands. A bonus feature that I have surprisingly appreciated is a sleek leather saddle. I thought at first that the saddle may be to small and thin for my taste, but I find it surprisingly comfortable and adds to the classic lines of my pretty little bike.
There really are many advantages to riding this classic style of bike, aside from being told that you look "like a photo" as you bike along (yes, this has happened to me). Most notably, for me, was the reduced strain I was placing on my body. As I mentioned, riding hunched forward on my mountain bike was doing a number on my back, shoulders, and wrists due to my weight being heavily dispersed forward. Almost as soon as I switched to an upright, I noticed how my back and wrist pain nearly disappeared and that I could ride much longer distances. All that would really hurt was my bottom after spending hours in the saddle. Instead of riding my bike being a chore, I love heading out for a day of riding, whether for errands or just enjoying a leisurely bike ride.
In addition to less bodily strain, I feel incredibly safe while riding around on a city bike. Because the nature of the bike is to sit upright, I can see everything around me easily without having to crane my neck around to check blind spots for passing bikes and cars, or checking for oncoming traffic at intersections. Not only can I can see more clearly, but sitting so straight means drivers can see me easily as well. Because I'm not leaned forward, I'm not hidden by parked cars as I come to an intersection, and it's hugely comforting to know I'm that much more visible to those I share the road with. Along with being more visible, it's a natural tendency on an upright bike to ride at a slightly slower pace. Due in part to my body position, the materials used to make city bikes, and that most max out around 7 speeds, it is unlikely that I'll be racing from point A to point B at high speeds. This means I have time to see the traffic around me and react quickly to the erratic and unpredictable behavior from drivers, fellow cyclists, and pedestrians.
Outside of all the practical reasons to choose a city bike, there's one really important reason why I choose to ride an upright bicycle. I have the bike I do because when I'm out on a ride, I want to fully experience the world around me. I want to see everything I can, which isn't easy with a more leaned forward position on a bike. I have enjoyed impromptu rides with my husband and our children, and the sights I was privy to were such a great part of my day. From the beautiful skyline through the foggy clouds to the still water in the marinas, I am completely in awe of the beauty unfolding before me. I have my day brightened by many complete strangers smiling at me as I pass, making eye contact, and saying good morning as they go about their days. When riding my upright bike I feel connected to the people and the places I pass, and I would be remiss without those moments because I was hunched over on a bike focused only on the road ahead of me.
When all is said and done, the best bike for you is one that makes you happy and eager to get back on it for a ride. What I hope, though, is that I have given you a better understanding of why city bikes aren't just for show, and could quite possibly be the bike you've been searching for all along. While the simple bicycle has evolved so much over time to meet the needs of the racer or the mountain biker, there is something to be said for this nearly unchanged early 20th century design. One meant for transportation, not just for recreation, and designed for civilized travel, dressed in even your Sunday best. I am personally very happy to see a resurgence of the city bike, and invite you to join me as I travel along at a leisurely pace, enjoying every aspect of my surroundings and the people I meet along the way!
Melissa Bruntlett lives in Vancouver, BC. When not riding around with her family and enjoying life by the ocean, she writes for her blog Velo Family Diaries.