One of the drawbacks of motorhoming is the absence of a ‘second vehicle’ to jump into to buy that milk and bread non-motorhoming people always believe you’ll forget, once in camp, and/or to simply explore your local area.
Short of towing a small car or carrying a motorcycle somehow, a bicycle provides both cheap and easy transport that – most importantly – can deliver a significant health benefit at the same time.
But not all bicycles are created equal and choosing the right style is more important than you might think. For example, there’s no point buying a Tour de France contender when all you want is to ride 500 metres to grab that darned milk and bread; but by the same token it’s pointless buying a bells-and-whistles mountain bike for the same mission.
Like everything in our society, bicycles – I’ll call them Bikes from now on – come in a bewildering array of styles, shapes and sizes. In a future issue I’ll be looking at the new wave of electric bikes (eBikes): an exciting development for those looking for a helping hand as they ride.
Broadly speaking, bikes fall in to three categories: Mountain, Road and Hybrid. Here’s a run through their pros and cons, but first let me explain something really important.
Bike Gears 101
Bikes in the lower price ranges these days are usually advertised as having 21 or 24 gears and occasionally 27. This is a bit of a misnomer, in the same way saying a 4WD like a Nissan Patrol comes with 10 gears, for example, instead of 5 plus a 2-speed transfer case. Let me explain...
The big sprockets the pedals attach to on any bike are known as ‘chain rings.’ The small ones at the rear wheel are individually called ‘sprockets’, but the group of them is called a ‘cassette’ (you might also hear ‘cluster’ used).
A bike with 21 gears will have 3 chain rings of varying sizes up front and a cassette with 7 sprockets (of varying sizes) at the back wheel. Multiply 3 by 7 and you get 21. In bike-shop speak you’d talk about this bike being a ‘seven-speed triple’; meaning seven speeds in the main gear seat and a triple chain ring up-front.
When the going is easy you use the biggest front chain ring and when it gets tough you use the smallest. When it’s somewhere in between you use the middle one. But that’s only part of the story. Assisting you down the back are the individual gears of the cassette, which provides a range of ratio options to fine-tune your pedaling effort.
In practice you do most of your gear shifting with the multiple choices offered by the rear cassette set and only change the front gears (chain rings) when the terrain and/or wind changes appreciably. So in reality, a ‘21-speed bike’ is really a 7-speed bike with 3 gear-range options, but the bottom line is the more gears you have the easier your riding will be.
Tough, rugged and near indestructible, mountain bikes are the favoured choice of RVers around the world. Characterised by suspension, fat tyres, wide handlebars and an upright riding position, they are the SUV of the cycling world and can go just about anywhere.
Mountain bikes have smaller diameter wheels than road bikes and fatter tyres that run at lower pressures. These keep you closer to the ground (good for confidence) and provide good traction on mixed surfaces, but all that rubber creates friction and friction takes effort to overcome. Your effort. Fat tyres make for slow progress, as do chunky tyre patterns that detract from ride comfort on hard surfaces. Mountain bikes are also heavy to cope with their intended usage, thus adding to your riding effort. These days they fall into two sub-categories: hardtail and full-suspension.
Hardtails have front suspension only and are the original style of mountain bike. Now the province of serious off-road riders who cycle up hill as well as down, they are also the cheapest style of mountain bike.
Suspension on a bicycle is a double-edged sword. On the plus side it enhances overall ride comfort and reduces road shock through the handlebars; a particularly important consideration with older bones. On the down side it adds weight, complexity and when you’re riding (especially up hill), every time it compresses under the power stroke as you pedal, it robs you of energy and increases the overall pedalling effort.
Dual-suspension mountain bikes are the smoothest riding bikes of all, with the rear suspension designed to cushion the impact of high-speed down-hill descents. They’re ideal if you catch the chairlift to the top of Thredbo and let gravity take you back down, but their added weight and complexity is a real drawback. So too is the increased riding effort, because every time you pedal the rear suspension will compress to some degree, robbing you of some forward motion.
As an overall choice a mountain bike would be my second; its weight, slow speed and pedalling effort tarnishing it’s inherent strength, durability and wide gear range
As a keen road cyclist I have to say a road bike makes little or no sense in this application, despite being lighter and faster than any other type of bike.
Narrow handlebars, a less relaxed riding position and narrow, high-pressure tyres that are unsuitable to anything other than smooth, hard road surfaces all add up to a less-than-desirable package best kept for exercise and fun.
A hybrid is generally accepted to be cross between a mountain and a road bike. Delivering lighter weight, faster speeds and easier riding, a hybrid promises (and largely delivers) the best of both worlds.
From a mountain bike a hybrid gets front suspension, wide handle bars and an upright riding position. It also picks up wide-range gearing. From a road bike a hybrid get larger diameter wheels, which are more stable at speed, and narrower tyres, which roll more easily yet are still suitable for a wide range of surfaces.
Put the two together and you have a bike that’s lighter and faster than a mountain bike, yet more comfortable and durable than a road bike. Bolt on a rack and some lights and you have a machine that’s as at home riding across rough park after a late trip to the supermarket as it is pottering around the streets of a new town.
The Bottom Line
As you might have guessed, a hybrid is my preferred and recommended choice for an all-round bike best suited to the motorhoming lifestyle.
No matter your choice, the old axiom that the more you pay the more you get largely holds true. The more you pay the lighter and better built and equipped your bike will be. I’d also recommend buying a new bike from a local bike shop, not a supermarket, department store or car parts superstore. I’ve looked at the shoddy workmanship, welded components that should be solid metal and absolutely basic fittings (gears/brakes/shifters) in bikes at these places that not only bode poorly for ease of riding and longevity, but also safety.
Apart from far better quality from a bike shop, the bike will be fitted to your body size and ready to ride out the door. It will also be backed by a national warranty actually worth the paper it’s written on.
Although most bikes are made in Taiwan or China they’re not all created equal. But that doesn’t mean you have to spend a fortune. A good quality name brand hybrid can be yours for around $500 or less.
The good news is that whatever bike you choose, if you ride it regularly it will help save you money and make you healthier. It will also provide cheap and reliable transport – just the thing you need when you forget the bread and milk. Again...
For the full article, with photos, download Issue 14 of iMotorhome eMagazine by clicking on the link below.