Bikes for the commute: New models more comfortable, reliable for riding to work
By JOE MILLER - McClatchy Newspapers

Last Updated 12:31 pm PDT Wednesday, June 25, 2008

http://www.sacbee.com/851/story/1039343.html

RALEIGH, N.C. -- When Steve Wilson decided to upgrade his three-speed English touring bike to something better suited to getting him to work and around Durham, N.C., more efficiently, he had something utilitarian in mind.

"I like riding in town," Wilson says, "riding to the shopping center, to pick up things."

Functionality, reliability and sturdiness topped his must-have list.

He wound up with the Novara Fusion, which fits those parameters. But it's also one of the more fun of a new breed of fun - and functional - bikes that have flooded the market over the past several years.

Twenty-five years ago, bikes fell into two basic categories: kid bikes and road bikes. Upon graduating to the latter, with its butt-bruising stiff seat and handlebars requiring more stretching than most grown-ups were willing to endure, all but the hard-core parked their rides in a remote corner of the garage.

U.S. bike sales dropped accordingly, from a record 15.2 million sold in 1973 to just 6.8 million nine years later.

Eventually, bike manufacturers got the message. They began producing rider-friendly bikes, bikes with more comfortable seats, that let the rider sit in an upright position and that had more and more gears (we're up to 30 now) to help lessen the grind of hills.

Today, those bikes - broadly referred to as hybrids - are buoying an otherwise flat bike market: Last year, according to the National Bicycle Dealers Association, 16.5 million hybrids were sold in the U.S., a 25 percent increase in just three years. Sales of these already popular bikes have spiked since the first of the year as people refuse to pay $4 for a gallon of gas.

"There's been an explosion in those types of bikes on the market," according to Thomas Prehn, president of Colorado-based Boulder Sports Research, which follows bike industry trends.

"We had our best May ever," says Kevin Coggins, owner of The Spin Cycle bike shop in Cary.

"We've seen very good bike sales," agrees Curtis Dobbins, who manages the bike shop for the Durham REI store. "And some of that is a reflection of where gas prices are."

The bikes in this category may seem expensive; especially to someone whose last bike was a Schwinn Varsity. Expect to pay $500 to $1,000. "But with gas prices," Dobbins says, "you'll have it paid for in a month."

A feature on some of the new bikes even cuts down on maintenance costs. Internally geared bikes have all the gears - generally from three to eight - encased in the rear hub. They don't need lubrication and because they're sheltered from the elements, they rarely get messed up.

Cushier seats and the upright design make these bikes more comfortable. Small touches such as a trunk under the rear seat, quick-release fenders and even coffee cup holders make riding a bike a different experience than it was even 10 years ago.

You can further increase a bike's usefulness with racks and pannier systems that let you tote everything from your laptop to groceries.

With so many fun and functional bikes available, how do you know which one is best for you? We hit three local bike stores to see what the most popular bikes were in the hybrid category (which bike manufacturers have divided into subcategories with names such as "Bike Path," "Urban" and "Multi-Street").