My gateway into adult cycling was a Trek Antelope 800 I bought my sophomore year in college. This was nominally an entry level mountain bike, but I used it exclusively as an urban explorer. Strictly speaking it was not a beater bike, having been purchased new, but after that first one got stolen, I bought another, used, rattle-canned it bright yellow to deter theft, and more or less conquered the world on it.
I first heard the term ‘beater bike’ from a guy who’s name I don’t remember, the boyfriend of my girlfriend’s roommate. He was a big, burly dude, and he had this raw aluminum frame he’d salvaged from somewhere. It weighed a ton and had bit of tennis grip tape on it. He rode it everywhere. When I expressed some admiration for his bike he said, “Oh, this is just a beater. You’ve got to have a beater around here.”
Eventually my bright yellow world-beater got stolen too. I moved on to a black, decommissioned Raleigh cross-country bike with the decals removed. By now, the bike was an integral part of my lifestyle. Living in the city, not having a lot of money, it was perfect, and I had grown to love it deep in my soul. I never stopped feeling like I was getting one over on everyone else, the drivers and pedestrians, and I never lost the sense of the bike as a toy, a gyroscopic, gravity transportation toy.
While much of the bike-loving populace keeps an eye trained on the latest super bike, I have remained steadfastly intrigued by beaters. I sit in the coffee shops down on Mass Ave and watch the parade go by, this one with a milk crate zip-tied on its rack, that one a ’70s ten-speed with long, bar-top shifters, another a tricked-out hybrid with racks and panniers. Like dogs, they tend to look a lot like their owners.
I’ve had a fair few of them since that black Raleigh. I had a tank cruiser. I’ve had three or four fixies. It’s possible that, for a while, I lost sight of what makes a good beater. A beater ought not be “nice.” The point is, quite literally, that you’re going to beat on it.
So what makes a good beater bike? Well, it should be sturdy, for starters. Weight is not a concern. It shouldn’t be eye-catching either. For the sort of velo fetishists I consort with, this is usually a big challenge. They just can’t help making their bike look good in some way. You should be able to love your beater, but not get too attached. Theft is a reality. You should be able to recognize your beater from 100 yards.
A beater should also be comfortable without an eye on piling on big miles. This is a short haul machine, the ultimate expression of utilitarianism. You don’t need to be aero. You need not slam any stems. Flat pedals, too.
In the future, when personal transport no longer includes automobiles, and the newest film in the Mad Max franchise features only bicycles, beaters will reign supreme. There will be whole businesses dedicated to rattle-canning your latest creation, and a true wheel will be more valuable than a bushel of corn. If you’re smart, you’ll be ready for that day. Maybe you already are.