The main justification of the drop bar riding position is that it is “faster”. This of course is correct in terms of aerodynamics, power output, and the like. What it doesn’t take in to account is the environment you are riding in. For urban riding, what is the fastest? When you’re the lone biker on a busy street full of cars, speed is usually your friend. I believe it is safer to have less of a difference between your speed and that of the cars around you. Since lights are timed for fast moving cars, you are also more likely to move through intersections if you are closer to automotive speeds. The flip side of riding hard though is time spent before and after the ride. Special shoes, secure your pants leg, maybe even a full outfit change? After the ride comes the cool down period before you’re ready to reenter polite society. Like many a car I’ve seen gunning the gas, just to hit that red light, I wonder if we sometimes mistake max velocity for speed. Door to door, what really gets us there faster?
In Berlin, I’ve seen this affect amplified. Nearly everyone seems to trudge along at an easy 8-10 mph pace. Pleasant enough, but it feels painfully slow for someone used to revving up the heart rate on every ride. But I quickly notice the housewife I passed in a flurry 2 blocks back catching up to me at the next light…and then again after my normal cruising pace sends me past her once we start moving again. Why am I breathing harder than she is when we’re covering the same distance in the same time?
In this town, what seems leisurely, is actually efficient. With most people riding the same style bike, a dominant speed takes over, and trying to exceed it means you are constantly trying to find a place on the bike path to pass, zipping away only to run up to the next group cruising along. When there are enough bikes about to actually constitute “traffic”, suddenly, other factors apply. Like the impatient commuter making 20 lane changes in stop and go traffic only to find himself back behind that same truck, sometimes the fastest speed is the one that moves you smoothly and evenly with those around you.
In Los Angeles, you become so accustomed to viewing the riding environment as a threatening wilderness, full of threats to be avoided…challenges to conquer. Beyond the efficiency of moving through space as part of a steady, non-turbulent flow, what does it mean to the other parts of our routine to move in concert with those around us rather than trying to grab the most (speed or whatever else) the situation seems to allow?