Ask many bike owners why their bicycle is gathering dust in the garage, and they'll tell you it's too uncomfortable to ride. Who wouldn't get turned off by a contraption that routinely bruises your seat bone, causes carpal tunnel syndrome in the wrist, compresses your disks, and leads to neck and back pain? "Crouching over at an acute angle like that can cause a lot of problems," says Dr. Karen Schneider, a sports medicine specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York.
But joy riders can take heart. Manufacturers such as Schwinn, GT, Raleigh, Giant, and Trek are finally marketing a wide selection of inexpensive, sporty cruiser and comfort bikes that are feel-good alternatives to road, mountain, and hybrid bikes (table).
Cruisers "look like the bikes you rented at the beach when you were a kid," says Katherine Costa, a 43-year-old analyst at Compaq Computer in Houston. Three months ago, Costa traded in her barely ridden road bike, with its thin tires, drop handlebars, and aerodynamic design, for a cruiser. She now rides four times a week. "It's so fun and comfortable, it hardly seems like exercise," she says.
Cruisers typically have smooth, wide tires; large, cushioned seats; and handlebars that sweep up and around so you can sit upright with an open chest. Apart from being easier on your neck, shoulders, and wrists, this posture doesn't concentrate all your weight on your lower back, which is the case when you ride a recumbent bike. Until cruisers came along, the odd-looking recumbents--with their stretched-out frames on which you recline with your legs positioned in front of you--were the only back-friendly option. But recumbents are hard to maneuver, and their low-to-the-ground design often makes them difficult for other vehicles to spot. It also hampers bicyclists' ability to glance back to see traffic coming from behind.
While today's cruisers might look like the vintage variety, they're made of better materials: For example, they usually have stainless-steel spokes, foam grips, and puncture-resistant tires. Most of them, such as Dyno's collectible hot-rod model with a flame motif painted on the fenders, have sturdy steel-alloy frames that weigh 35 to 40 pounds. Giant and Trek make aluminum-frame models that are only 24 to 26 pounds.
Cruisers usually have one speed and coaster brakes--the brakes you operate by moving the pedal backward--although Giant and Raleigh offer versions with seven speeds and hand brakes. With cruisers, "there's no intimidation factor," says Joe Lindsey, a writer for Bicycling Magazine. "You don't feel as if you have to be an elite athlete to ride one."
The prices aren't intimidating either. Cruisers cost between $150 and $400, compared with $800 to $1,500 for a recumbent bike and as much as $2,000 to $6,000 for a high-end road bike or a stout and nubby-tired mountain bike. The difference between the lower- and higher-end cruisers generally comes down to weight, number of speeds, and mod detailing.
NO STRAINING. Comfort bikes, which became available about three years ago, are more expensive than cruisers because they have more features. They start at $300 and go up to $930 for a 24-speed Raleigh. This allows you to adjust gears to tackle hills or windy conditions without straining. Whereas cruisers' smooth tires make them suited mostly for gliding over pavement, the ridges and bumps on comfort-bike tires provide enough traction so you can do light off-road riding, like on a bark-covered path.
Some comfort bikes, such as Trek's Navigator and Schwinn's Sierra, also have suspension seat posts and forks connecting to the front tires-- features borrowed from mountain bikes. These accordion-like devices act as shock absorbers to help ease your ride. Some bikes, such as GT Timberline, have adjustable front stems that allow you wide latitude to raise or lower the handlebars to suit your height. You are more upright on a comfort bike than on mountain or road bikes, but--unlike on a cruiser--you still have to lean forward to ride no matter how much you adjust the handlebars.
What you gain in ease when you ride a cruiser or comfort bike, you lose in performance. The upright position is not exactly aerodynamic or ideal when it comes to getting the most leverage from your legs. So forget about these bikes if you have a need for speed. Don't even think about racing someone on a road bike--you'll get left in the dust.
And you will break your neck if you try to ride one of these bikes up or bump down a mountain path. "Cruisers are for getting out and riding around the neighborhood, running errands, and generally having fun," says Michael Klasmeier, program director at the League of American Bicyclists, a biking advocacy group in Washington. Comfort bikes are for those who like to take pleasure rides around town and want to tackle a moderately hilly bike trail on occasion. They are also a good bet for noncompetitive charity rides.
Whether you're riding hunched over a 10-speed roadie or pedaling upright on a single-speed cruiser, you're getting great exercise. But you're likely to ride longer and more often if you're comfortable. By Kate Murphy