A few weeks ago Ecovelo had a post and discussion about Grant Peterson coining the phrase “Country Bike.” If you’ve read back in this blog you know that I like the term, and believe that it defines a style of riding that has long been underserved by the industry.
Given the Rivendell mystique, it’s easy to dismiss country biking as more of a lifestyle/mindset than an actual style of bike. I don’t disagree that it is a mindset – just read my bio about riding for enjoyment and exploration rather than speed, and you get the sense of where its all coming from. While there is a competitive side to me that I will never let go of, it has been helpful to keep a healthy distance between that and my biking interests; otherwise I’d be spending a lot more money and kidding myself into thinking that I could somehow be a ranked amateur cyclist. I can keep that distance by grasping a definition that accurately categorizes me and thus legitimize the type of riding I do. “I am not a racing biker, I am a country biker.” (Suddenly the group nods in approval as if to understand what that means.)
But the fact remains that you can distinguish a country bike from most others by it’s intended purpose, the type of riding done on it, and thus its overall geometry and component mix. I think from a traditional viewpoint, the closest type of bike to meet this definition has been the Fast Tourer or Credit Card Tourer, although historically I don’t think they make the perfect country bike.
So what type of riding does one do on a country bike? Obviously a mix: winding back roads, some hills, some level; rolled pavement, chip seal, crushed limestone, and a few of your basic dirt lanes. Not a lot of stopping and starting, but rather, reflective of the fact that things are farther from each other in the country. So you could go a half mile to the store, or go out for a day ride century. Trails. Not 29er trails, but anything ranging from a rail trail to a dedicated bike path to some relatively mild single track. But usually the single track is a means to an end (getting to your destination) rather than the experience sought.
Given that sort of riding, what then determines how a country bike is put together? First and foremost, there is a balance between rider comfort, bike durability, speed, hill climbing ability, and capacity to carry smallish loads. A country bike might also be able to carry big loads, but that amounts to a tourer, and I do believe there are subtle differences.
The frame geometry is relaxed in order to make it easy handling, bump absorbing, and stable when carrying gear. I don’t think it has to be steel, but that would be my preference. Braze-ons for racks, fenders, a pump, etc are expected, but I think you could improvise on a relaxed frame without braze-ons. Still, if you’re going to be riding on wet roads or in the mud, fenders are a real blessing. I like the idea of long chainstays to soften the ride, and big tire clearance is a must. I think you could argue either way on bottom bracket height: low for relaxed riding and balance, or high for adequate clearance on those single tracks we were talking about.
Back to comfort. I know its expected to tout leather saddles like Brooks, Anatomica, or Ideale; but let’s face it, there are plenty of happy riders out there on other, less expensive seats. The bottom line is that you might be on the thing for several hours at a time, so it needs to be comfortable. Bars more or less take the same approach. You need something that is going to be comfortable for the long haul. Drops are my preference, but you can have a perfectly fine country bike with trekking or ‘staches. The crux is to have lots of hand positions, and to have them positioned in a way that allows a balance of body weight between the hands and the butt. I like drops because of being able to go into a tuck when blasting down a nice grade.
I think gearing might be an area where the country bike is unique. You don’t need the ultra low gears of a tourer to haul a bunch of kit up a mountain pass, but you don’t also need a big 52 tooth ring to shoot down the other side of that pass at 60mph either. Still, you want to be able to grind up hills comfortably and move along at speed on the flats without spinning out. I think you can probably get by with a compact double provided the small ring is small enough, and you have a cassette/freewheel to get you the rest of the way. I’m using a triple because it meets my needs and I was talked out of a compact double by the bike mechanic for durability reasons. While I’m using 9 speed rears right now, I think I could be just fine with either an 8 or 7. I rarely if ever go up into the 11 cog, so its just a waste of space. So a “road bike” would have less gears at a higher ratio, a mountain bike would have lower ratios, as would a touring bike, and a city bike…we’ll talk about that later.
Tires. It’s splitting fine hairs, but a country bike can be distinguished from other most common forms by the tires. I personally believe that the 37c Pasela Tourguard is the quintesential country bike tire. It’s big and puffy to absorb the pavement and provide comfort and stability, while still having minimal rolling resistance. It’s not a favorite among the ultra distance touring set because they prefer Schwalbes, which are a tad heavier and thicker. Still, you can have a country bike and run tires down to 28mm, or up to…say 42. Any narrower and you’ve lost the comfort factor; any larger and the weight is going to be slowing you down.
There you have it – the country bike defined by purpose and design. Can you have a different style bike and still be a country biker? I think you’d have trouble. You might be able to ride county roads, but not as easily (I’m sure Kent Peterson would disagree.)
Finally, someone aptly asked: “What’s the difference between a country bike and a city bike?” I don’t do a lot of city biking, but my recent Critical Mass ride had me reflecting on it. In the city, things are a lot closer together and there is more starting and stopping. I think I would prefer either upright or ‘stache bars that would facilitate being able to be more observant of traffic and more comfortable sitting at a red light. I’d want lower overall gearing and probably fewer gears because there is no need for extended high speed riding, and fewer hills. I’m not sure about the frame geometry… it might be advantageous to have shorter stays and tighter steering to deal with traffic, but my gut tells me it wouldn’t matter that much. I would definitely go with a set of bomb-proof wheels to deal with potholes and curbs, and most likely tires on the larger side of the spectrum. Finally, I think given the environment and what bikers are experiencing in cities, the bike would be ugly without a lot of sex appeal, so it would stay mine as long as possible.
So please direct any questions or comments to: the Pedalling Along Ad Nauseum Commentary, and stay tuned for next week’s column where we tackle that aging question, “How can we get rid of all these cars that keep clogging up our streets and ruining life as we know it?”
Now where’d I set that cherry pipe tobacco?