Though the everyman has been known to shake an outraged, heaven-held fist at “The 1%,” perhaps you rank among that controversial group or hold aspirations to one day be counted. As a DailyXY reader you are, after all, a gentleman.
The good news is that whether you are one of Canada’s estimated 1% of bicycling urban commuters, or you are merely considering, ahem, wheel life, bike technology has never been so advanced—or, a crucial concern for the au courant downtown dude, stylish. Those of you who grew up with clunky Crappy Tire hybrids will be happy to hear that you need no longer look like a sorry off-trail wannabe in order to travel to/from work efficiently. Even if the percentage of cycle commuters isn’t growing (at last StatsCan estimate, 1.2%: unchanged in the last decade), the look and associated aesthetic of the rides has improved radically.
The advent of the current, prevalent urban velocipede model dates back less than half a decade and, to quote an overused catchphrase, ain’t yer parents’ bicycle. Because really, if anything, it’s your grandparents’ bicycle—which, we’ll soon agree, is cool.
Whether walking or driving, you’ve probably noticed the trend over the last few years: upright-seat bikes. It’s a design that was most popular in the post-WWII era and, as retrospect will prove, was unjustifiably banished (as well as, frankly, mocked) during the multi-decade supremacy of drop handlebars.
The thing is, upright seating is fantastic for urban commuting. There are three key reasons: upright seating discourages speeding; it is better for the body, particularly the back; and it allows the cyclist to both people-watch and be watched by people. (Let’s not kid ourselves on that last point: you are into both.)
I recently concluded an intensive evaluation—two months (not the nice ones): fall and winter—of a fully equipped commuter/urban bike. The official brand title is less specific, mind you: MEC Mixed Tape Unisex Bike ($575). Designed in Canada, the Mixed Tape embraces the aforementioned upright aesthetic as well as follows another recent and literally tidy trend: an internal hub for gear shifting.
Without getting into technicalities, all you need to know about an internal hub system is that it moves all of the shifting mechanics into the rear wheel, by implication removing the need for a significant amount of external hardware and now allowing for a chain guard (so: no pants caught in chain, and no chain oil flying around). The resultant design is clean in the unencumbered sense but also, more importantly, clean in the non-messy sense. On a ride like this, you can wear your good pants.
Bearing in mind the insane Canadian winter we just endured, you’ll appreciate that this bike had its work cut out for it, and then some. I’m based in Toronto; my typical commute is around 8 km, each direction, and includes a hill. Calculated for privacy, this map is a close-enough route approximation (it’s true: I neither start at a Seven-Eleven nor end at a McDonald’s). I’m usually 25-30min to work, and 30-35min home; you can intuit which direction is downhill.
It’s an understatement to say that the Mixed Tape’s lightweight aluminum frame came in handy. This bike is astonishingly nimble (astonishing, because it doesn’t look it). It’s also easy to pick up, whether you’re carrying it down stairs to the city’s most poorly planned indoor lock-up area (hello, my office building!) or lifting it for the typically awkward perpendicular-into-car-trunk manoeuvre, which was always no muss/no fuss/no problem.
On the wheel front, standard 700 x 35mm tires were admittedly installed for urban roads in “normal” (read: spring/summer/fall) conditions and are even rated for light trail use. Toronto’s post-thaw roads are so unprecedentedly pothole-ridden as to now be reminiscent of Montreal, and they were sometimes death-defying in the deep winter. I was unable to use the bike safely for half the season, but that would have been the case for any bike. What’s important is that during the six weeks where I could use the bike, the wheels functioned just fine; impressive, for non-winter tires.
But enough about the performance. You want to know about style. You want to be assured that you can get from A-to-B, and back, downtown, on a bike, and not just look good when you arrive but also while you travel. Well, friend, you’re selling yourself short—because you can look great.
For dress, we’ll leave the inner layers to you (and other DailyXY fashion consultants). For outer wear, I was outfitted with an Urge Activist Cycling Helmet ($40) and a MEC Clydesdale Pant ($50). The helmet leans army-issue motorcycle; very sleek. The pant is practical/sporty and light-weather resistant but designed to look “hipster” (MEC’s term, not mine) and specced to a ride-position cut, which prevents plumber’s butt.
The MEC Crosstown Jacket’s ($159) the treasure here, though. Simply, I defy you or any observer, whether on the road or in the office, to identify this gear as gear, or as anything but a fashion statement. Top concern is fulfilled: it’s a smart-looking jacket. But it’s beyond practical. It’s waterproof: 2.5 layers’ worth, all breathable. Its outer DWR (durable water repellency) provides water-off-a-duck’s-back protection. It has coverable/stashable reflective tape and tabs; easy to expose/hide, they’re wonderful, essential safety accents for the ride portion of your day. It even has a zippered chest pocket operable with one hand while riding—not that you’d ever manipulate your smartphone while driving, right?
A final word on the fashion front: my urban commute cycling package included a MEC Audax Roll-Up Pannier ($65), which converts from pannier to shoulder bag so seamlessly that no casual onlooker would suspect it came straight off the back of the bike. I was complimented on this pannier (and jacket) at two client meetings; in both cases, they called it my “laptop bag.”
As this article’s getting longer than my commute, we’ll cut to the cost. It’s more affordable than you might expect. The Mixed Tape bike starts at $575 (my model, which had 5 gears; upgrade versions have 8 or 11 gears and, a small criticism, I would have to say that 8 would better suit a commuter facing hills). Various supplied hardware including USB-chargeable bike lights, mini-tire pump with pressure gauge, U-lock etc. came to another $200, and the clothing/pannier another $275.
All in: just over $1,000. So, a one-time fee of 100% of an annual budget for those urbanites who use public transit, in order to join the 1%. It’s better for your physical health, better for your stress, and I daresay you’ll look better at the same time as feeling it. You don’t have to purchase my particular package: numerous manufacturers make similar versatile bikes and clothes. That said, MEC has a deserved reputation for not just affordable quality but also longevity, and as you can see from the provided links, they’re making leaps and bounds of late on the style front. The simple fact that I didn’t even expect to be on the road for any of this winter but still got in six weeks, with no contacts/clients having the slightest suspicion I’d cycled, has this reviewer giving two thumbs up—albeit still holding onto the ergo-grip handlebars.