The perfect commuter: Clare Barry and her everyday bike

This article was originally published in dandyhorse issue 3.

The perfect commuter

Clare Barry ~ One of the joys of my day is commuting to and from work on my bike. I can carry all I need and navigate very easily as the brakes, lever to shift gears and bell are all positioned correctly. The frame is lightweight so it maneuvers easily, while handling rough spots and rail tracks well due to the wider rims and tires. One rear pannier holds my workbag and in the other I carry a change of clothes, lunch and the occasional baguette.

Story and photo by Marco Sobrevinas

Mike Barry was my first mentor in cycling. His ideas and style have influenced my cycling preferences. A bike he built graced the cover of the second issue of dandyhorse, where he was featured prominently. Toward the end of the article, he talks about the ideal bicycle for commuting: “The bike you ride should be functional and efficient, but shouldn’t be fancy.” With this in mind Barry built his wife the perfect commuter bike — Clare Barry is posing with her custom Mariposa in this photo, which she’s been riding in downtown Toronto since 1986. Want one like Barry built? Here’s what you need to know:


Due to their cost, carbon and titanium frames are out of the picture. This leaves the other two commonly available frame materials: steel or aluminum. Aluminum is lightweight but tends to transmit road shock to the rider. Steel is generally heavier but has a pleasant spring to it when you hit rough patches — such as Toronto’s ubiquitous potholes.


For a commuter bike you want relaxed, predictable steering. A long wheelbase contributes to straight tracking, and a lower bottom bracket height improves stability. Your feet should reach the ground.


Mike Barry mentioned light 26" wheels as an ideal size for a city bike. If it’s conventionally built, repair will be relatively simple and parts easy to find. Light but strong aluminum rims are quick and durable and give a decent braking surface for wet pads when it rains. Stainless steel spokes take away the worry of rust.


Clare’s bike tires are made of road tread, which are much safer than knobbies in the rain. A light and resilient casing, wire bead and perhaps a Kevlar belt to ward off punctures are ideal. Quality commuting tires with these features range from $30 to $50 per tire.


Get full coverage fenders that use proper stays. (They work much better than clip-ons.) A mud flap on the front fender cuts down on cold water and slush spray on your feet. Plastic fenders are easier to mount, metal are more durable.


A rack can mount panniers, which means you can ditch the knapsack.

This gets the weight off your body and onto your bike. It’s much easier to mount fenders and racks if you have eyelets and braze-ons built into the frame and fork to begin with. Otherwise, you’ll be forced to use clamps to hold those items to your frame.


Clare’s bike has a beautiful chainguard, a nice convenience that prevents grease marks on her pants. A chainring guard is simpler but not as effective.


Don’t bother. It adds weight and you can get comfort from wide tires. There is one form of suspension I like on a city bike — a sprung saddle. The undisputed pinnacle for this type is the all-leather Brooks brand.



Drop bars are great thanks to the variety of hand positions they provide, but not really essential if your commuting rides are typically less than 30 minutes. Straight bars stretch your wrists outward, which can be uncomfortable. Bars with a pronounced sweep back towards the rider are the most ideal for commuters in an urban setting for rides under a half hour. The rider is generally more upright, allowing a natural wrist position and easy sight lines.


The lightweight led-type lights are convenient and easy to carry and mount. A single light can be purchased for under $5. They can be easily stolen, and are not always as bright as other lighting systems. One of the best solutions is a hub-driven lighting system with a capacitor that is bolted onto the bike (featured on Clare’s bike). It is more difficult to steal, you always have lighting and you never have to worry about batteries. The biggest barrier is the cost: the generator hub alone starts at $100 and goes up. A single light can start at $50.

Bell or Horn

This is not an option. Position the bell or horn near your hands on the bars, so you can easily reach it while riding.


Use a single-speed freewheel: it’s light, cheap, low maintenance and they’re very easy to clean in the winter. Be prepared to work hard on steep hills. Derailleurs: relatively easy to fix and very common technology. The only negative: the gears are subject to serious salt corrosion if you ride your bike throughout Toronto’s winters. Internal hub gear: the mechanism is protected inside the hub shell and you can change gears while stopped at a red light. These are commonly available from three speeds up to eight.


Caliper brakes, which are basically clamps with brake pads, are the easiest to maintain. Clare has a nice example on her Mariposa. They can work pretty well in all weather conditions. Disc brakes perform great whatever the conditions, but maintenance can be a bit more complicated. Don’t forget the coaster brake. These can be found on some internal hub gears and work surprisingly well, especially if you travel at slow speeds.


If you follow this recipe for Barry’s ideal city bike, you’ll find rides to be comfortable, convenient and safe. You’ll have a bike that’s easy to handle, protects you from road dirt and keeps you visible at night.

This article was originally published in dandyhorse issue 3.

The Bicycle Museum by dandyhorse will be posting imagees from Mike Barry's posthumous book: A life with bicycles on in the coming weeks.

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