Just so you know, as an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases made via bold green links, buttons or images.
Cruiser bikes: What are they good for? Depending who you ask, you might start a war!
Or at least heated argument.
In short, cruiser bikes are meant for leisurely rides in comfort and style. Their basic mechanism makes them the perfect choice for beginners. The classic vintage look is widely admired and easily customizable. Cruisers are the perfect type of bike to express your individual style and are sure to turn heads as you sail by.
A brief history of cruiser bikes
Cruiser bicycles have a long and colorful history.
Schwinn designed the original cruiser back in 1934 and they’ve undergone many improvements over the years. Many of the original design elements remain the same, such as the tell-tale battery-powered headlight.
At first cruisers were used mainly by paperboys and bike couriers, but they rose in popularity throughout the 1940s and ’50s. Competitors cropped up, adding new features and accessories. People began using the bicycles for enjoyment rather than work, and cruisers moved from the streets to the beaches. Beach cruisers became all the rage among beach bums up and down the coast.
Cruisers were widely available second-hand at garage sales from the 1960s to ’80s. Bikers on a budget were finding, fixing and adding to older models. While avid cyclists were turning to newer developments in road bikes, mountain bikes, BMX and more recently hybrid bikes, cruisers fell out of popular use.
During the 1990s, cruiser bikes began a resurgence in popularity thanks to appearances in American films and Schwinn’s release of a new model to celebrate the company’s 100th birthday. The cruiser bike was reintroduced to American consciousness and has been growing in popularity ever since.
That’s all well and good, but you may still be wondering, “What the heck is a cruiser bike!?”
What is a cruiser bike?
Cruiser bikes are characterized by unique features that make them look, feel and ride differently than other types of bikes. A few features in particular make a cruiser immediately recognizable: the frame, wheels, handlebars, seat, fenders, brakes, drivetrain, and the previously mentioned headlamp.
Let’s break them down, piece by piece.
Cruiser bikes have a long curvy frame design that includes an additional tube between the top and bottom for extra support. But design isn’t all that sets these frames apart. Cruiser bike frames are made from aluminum or steel, so they are heavy frames. Many old-school models weigh in at around 50 pounds. The advantage is that the bikes are incredibly stable, durable and able to bounce back from a fall. But pedaling uphill with this heavier frame is no walk in the park.
Cruiser bike pedals are usually made from plastic. They are light and cheap, adding to the casual feel of the bike.
Wheels, tires and rims
One of the most recognizable features of cruiser bikes are their big, wide, thick wheels. Sizes typically range from 24 inches up to 29 inches, but you can find outliers.
The tires are often called fat or balloon tires. The bigger they are, the easier it is to ride over debris or uneven roads. They will slow you down, because they’re designed for comfort rather than speed. They perform best on boardwalks or paved paths on flat terrain. The treads on cruiser tires are not much wider than one-quarter inch.
Rims on a cruiser bike are just another opportunity to customize your ride to reflect your personal style. Many cruiser bike rims are designed with lots of spokes to give the rims plenty of support and prevent them from bending. Rims come in lots of cool colors to match or add an accent to your bike, and spokes vary in materials and details. With so many optionsto choose from, it’s hard not to show off. And you certainly wouldn’t want to scuff up your cool-looking rims with something as messy as brakes. Rim brakes are one less thing to worry about on a cruiser.
Traditional cruiser bikes are built with coaster brakes. (For more information, read our post on the different types of bike brakes.) Coaster brakes keep the bike’s build simple and easier to maintain.
Nowadays it’s more common to see modern cruisers built with disc brakes, because they are a more sophisticated braking system. Hand brakes can be found on one or both wheels if you’re used to road bikes and are more comfortable with that style.
If you prefer to stick with the classic system, the few extra seconds of reaction time is OK because you seldom have to worry about reaching high speeds on a steep descent. It’s too hard to climb to the top of those peaks anyway!
Gears and drivetrain
Another reason to avoid hills with a cruiser is that most are built with only one gear—at least on the original and classically constructed bikes. The single speed drivetrain on most cruiser bikes consists of one crank wheel and a rear cassette hub. This simplicity keeps them causal and the perfect option for beginning cyclists or adults wanting to get back into biking with few complications. For some cyclists, one gear is all they can handle.
But a single gear combined with an upright riding position and heavier frame can make hills a challenge.
Newer, less traditional designs may have several gears. If they are designed more for performance than aesthetics, they are known as comfort bikes.
As with all modes of transportation, steering is important. Allowing you to do so in comfort and style is the cruiser’s speciality. You already know you won’t have to worry about getting entangled in brake cables. Cruiser bicycles have large padded handles for a comfortable no-slip grip, but the handlebar position is key.
A cruiser bike’s curved handlebars are raised roughly a foot up from the seat, curving around in a semi circle shape. The upright handlebars enable you to steer with your arms extended, and less back strain because you’re seated in a more upright position. But that’s not the only cushy part.
A cruiser bike seat, also referred to as the saddle, is much wider and more comfortable than you’ll find on regular bikes. Since the cruiser bike is all about leisure, you shouldn’t have to worry about it being uncomfortable. There are always ways to customize a bike seat with foam or gel covers, but cruisers are built with your butt in mind so you shouldn’t have to fend for yourself.
If your beach day gets rained out or a puddle appears in your path, fenders will keep those big sturdy wheels from spraying you. Many other bikes don’t include them, or if they do, they are small and usually flat. The less extra weight the better.
Such is not the case with cruiser bike fenders. They are curved and cover roughly a quarter of the front tire and about half of the back tire. They present another opportunity to customize your ride. Most cruisers have fenders that match the color of the frame, but I think they look cooler with a complementary color.
Now that we’re familiar with what makes a cruiser bike different from other bikes, it’s time to talk about the sub-genres of cruiser bikes. What, you thought they were all the same?
Types of cruiser bikes
Classic beach cruiser
The first model that comes to mind is the classic beach cruiser. This is a bare-bones bike, composed of simple parts that preceded its origin by decades. On classic beach cruisers you’ll find coaster brakes and basic drivetrains. A chain guard protects the single-speed drivetrain. This adds to the surface space of the bike, which just means more room to paint it your favourite color.
Stretch cruisers are true to their name, with a frame that in some cases can be twice the length of a regular frame. It’s a unique look that is usually built from customized parts, meaning your imagination is the only limitation.
Lowriders epitomize the laid-back vibe. The saddle is positioned far from the handlebars and lower to the ground. They’re undeniably cool, but lowrider cruisers are more for show than function.
Some cruiser bikes resemble motorcycles, modelled off the traditional chopper look. The front and rear wheels might even be different sizes. Choppers have long front ends, with a front wheel that extends far past the handlebars. Chopper handlebars—sometimes referred to as “ape hangers”—are extra long and mounted higher than they are on other cruiser models. This requires you to reach more upward than forward and puts you in a reclined position on your banana seat.
Most modern cruisers come with several gears—usually three gears and rarely more than seven. Multi-speed cruisers are a popular choice nowadays when looking for a new ride around town, especially for those who don’t want to admit defeat by walking their heavy bike up a hill.
Comfort bikes will usually have several gears. They combine the relaxed ergonomics of a cruiser with the more practical frames of mountain bikes and hybrid bikes.
Cruiser bike accessories
We can’t forget about accessories. These customizable pieces help you show off your personality no matter what model of cruiser you’re riding.
Aside from your bike’s brakes and drivetrain, every part mentioned above is completely customizable and presents an opportunity to show off. Want even bigger wheels? Beautiful. Flames on your fenders? Go for it. A back rest for your seat? No problem!
Most cruiser riders want their bikes to convey an overall look, so accessories can vary to complement your style. For example, with a modern multi-speed cruiser you might pick a colorful plastic basket. Or if you prefer the vintage feel, you might go for a wooden crate. You’ll have to attach a rack if your cruiser doesn’t already have one.
If you’d rather not display what you’re carrying, you could opt for saddle bags, but with so many options you won’t have to sacrifice your style. There are modern roll-down waterproof options such as Ortlieb, or classy leather-accented bags by Brooks.
Bike accessories give you thousands of options to make sure you’re seen. Sometimes that’s as simple as adding a bike bell, of which there are again an overwhelming amount of options. I like the pictures on electra bells. Why not pick one that reminds you of something you love every time you look at it?
Traditional and basic, or modern and totally tricked out—the cruiser bike wants you to make it your own.