Bicycle musings

Although I rode bicycles occasionally as a child, I didn’t own one as an adult until I moved to Washington, DC in 2017. In DC I had a perfect bike commute: 1.2 miles, mostly flat, and almost entirely along a protected bike path. I had recently learned about belt drives as an alternative to chains. I thought the concept was interesting, and decided to buy a Priority Continuum Onyx. I used it as a reliable daily driver for the 2 years I lived in DC, although I didn’t take many longer rides. I think the most distance I covered in a day was 12 miles, and that was a significant outlier.

As a short review, I’d say that the Continuum has some great features, but doesn’t quite work for me as a complete package. It has seemingly low maintenance requirements, although I’ve never owned a proper road bike, so I can’t make a proper comparison here. I love the dynamo hub. It’s wonderful just having lights when you need them. The CVT internally geared drivetrain means you can shift at a stop (not for the full gear range, though: it seems like with the wheel stopped you’re limited to about half the range). The belt drive ensures you won’t get grease on work clothes or get your pants caught in your drivetrain.

At ~30lbs, the bike is on the heavy side. That’s mainly annoying for carrying it up and down stairs, which is a relevant concern in New York City. Given the overall weight of bike + rider, the difference between it and a typical 20lb steel frame bike isn’t more than about 5%. It also has some components that seem a bit cheaply made. I’m guessing a large part of the budget was spent on the CVT, the dynamo hub, and disc brakes, leading to some price cutting for the rest. So, the grips feel cheap, the seat tends to creak, and something about the headset/geometry of the bike make it want to pull to the left when you try to ride with no hands.

It also feels like it’s missing a few “high” gears. I did a bit of math to make a comparison to a chain drive bike’s gearing. The CVT hub itself goes from 0.5 underdrive to 1.65 overdrive. The crank has 50 teeth, and the cog has 24 teeth. Overall, that translates to a gear ratio range of 1.04:1 to 3.44:1. A typical fixed-gear bike is geared around 2.75-3:1. A typical 21 speed road bike might have a highest gear at around 4:1. If a typical cyclist pedals comfortably at 60-80rpm, that means a 3.44:1 ratio gives a top speed of 17 to 23mph. In practice, I spend almost all of my time in the highest gear. When I’m going up a hill, I might shift down a small amount, but only if the hill is on the steeper side. And, when I pick up speed, I find myself wishing I could shift just a bit more, in order to get the same speed with a slightly slower cadence.

I’ve been thinking about trying out another bike, but I’m not sure I’m interested in another “complex” bike. A friend recently built a beautiful fixed-gear bike, which has me intrigued. A single-speed bike wouldn’t help my gear ratio gripes at all. In fact, I would probably choose something geared at 3:1 at most, to make hills more tolerable. I’m curious to see what a lighter frame with higher-quality components is like to ride. And, I’ve heard a lot about the unique experience that comes with riding fixed-gear. Despite the hipster hype, I’d like to see what that’s like for myself.

Due to the pandemic, NYC is currently an amazing place for cycling. The streets are more empty than I’ve ever seen them. It’s a great way to get around without using the subway. And, it’s a nice alternative to walking, with more range and variety of scenery. The first thing I’m doing to improve my cycling experience is to buy some clipless pedals and cleats. I discovered some clipless pedals that have one side as a flat/platform pedal, so they work with normal shoes as well. I found some mountain biking shoes that look pretty much like normal sneakers, which should be nice for biking places and then being able to walk around when you get there. I’m also keeping my eye out for single-speed bikes that catch the eye.