When bike’s are inbred

Update: Looking for a review of the Papillionaire? (Click on the linky bit already.)

What happens when a road bike marries his mountain bike cousin and they have a child? You get some kind of deformed hybrid, a device designed to fill a niche that never existed.

This week I had the great pleasure of taking a friend bike shopping. Any chance to look at, shop for and test ride bikes without parting with my own money is a welcome opportunity. Problem is you have to deal with some really annoying bike store shitheads. More on that later.

The friend in question is a not of the fixie persuasion. That is, in all due deference to thefixfixfix.com, where all hot chicks own fixies, usually fixies and single speeds are a guy thing. She’s of the neglected bicycle genus known as the woman is just coming back to cycling. She’s not in the fixie market. So I was after a ladies bike, something along the lines of the Bianchi my wife rides:
My wife with her Bianchi.

Not my wife.
Our first salesman insisted that ladies bikes were out of the question; too slow, too girly, and only suitable for little old ladies. He then proceeded to show us a half dozen bikes with about 2,000 gears between them, front (and often rear) suspension, and each with that ungainly deformed look you get in the progeny of two cousins. 
Now when I buy a bike for a lady I know the most important elements are:

  •  Step-through frame : even I love this feature when I ride my wife’s bike…however, doesn’t stop me swinging my leg over the back wheel and smashing my shin against the pack rack when I get off
  • Muguards: no woman I know wants to arrive at work with a dirty great stripe of mud running from her bum to the nape of her neck, looking like she shit herself while hanging upside down
  • Chain guard: why not keep the grease on the chain instead of on your trousers
  • Gears that don’t scare the hell of of them: many woman are confused and afraid of the 10,000-odd gear variations that come on modern bikes and rarely if ever change the front derailleur unless by mistake   
Our salesman focused on the holy trinity of aluminium frames, alloy rims and stainless steel spokes. These were repeated like a mantra. Nobody, we were informed, rode steel bikes any more. (Oops, I never got the memo.) I’m not clear what alloy wheels are made. An alloy is just a combination of metals, like chromoly steel, or 6061 aluminium.  I’ve even heard people talk about plastic alloys, though this is probably pushing the terminology friendship a little too far. Stainless steel is an alloy. So the alloy wheels were made out of steel or aluminium or possibly plastic and this was important for us to know because it made them better than the cheaper bikes (whose wheels were made from some kind of undisclosed pure metal).

He then recited the list of  benefits particular to each strange bike-like contraption (the front suspension, the front suspension with lock-out, the rear suspension, the tyres) and then asked my poor friend which of these “quantifiables” (his word) were taking her fancy. By now she had that, “Which language are we using now?” looks on her face. 

The problem with bikes is that the quantifiable parts of the bike are often the least of the bike’s attributes. This is something you and I understand. No doubt you’ve all had friends gobsmacked that your beloved bike has no gears. Have you ever been informed that you can get a bike with tens of gears for $200 at K-Mart. Yes, of course you have. And they were serious too, weren’t they.

A beautiful bike from Papillionaire with a deficit of quantifiables  

So I sympathize with the salesman a little. Being a complete knob is his fault. Having a bunch of crap on the showroom floor is not.

It’s very hard to sell intangibles or things are prosaic as fenders and guards. And very often your uninformed shopper would look at you like you’re a moron if you tried to sell them on the benefits of simplicity or the idea that they might enjoy riding their bike if that bike rode beautifully. Bikes are for buying, not riding. Bikes are like Christmas puppies. They’re left neglected in the pound (read: garage) by February. The uninformed shopper wants “quantifiables”. The fact that the bike rides like a sausage is never considered.

Trek Belleville WSD. Not available on any shop floor on the Gold Coast.

According to my salesman the bike above does almost everything wrong. For starters it’s made of steel. And it has no front suspension. No-one has quantified the mudguards and who knows where the lock-out is? It’s just a well designed bike that no doubt rides smoother and better than all the hybrids put together. (We test ride one Sunday. Found one in Brisbane.)

Once upon a time bike builders put a bend on the front fork and this was considered a comfortable and efficient way of soaking up the bumps. Worked wonderfully too. Good frame design will always give a more comfortable ride than suspsension. Suspension is a panacea to bad design. (But it’s great for mountain biking where 140mm has become my new minimum.)

The bike above hints at something that has been quietly moving along in tandem (ooh, bike pun) to the fixie thing for a few years now, an interest in a style of urban bike that is elegant and effective. Often vintage styles of bikes but not always, from full retro recreations to modern incarnations like those from Gazelle, the new bike movement is silently chugging on and the new bike movement is really just an old bike movement, a movement away from the evolutionary cul-de-sac of the 80s that brought as the hybrid. But from a perusal of Gold Coast shops you wouldn’t know it.

This new niche, for elegant and effective cycling transport, is being filled by bit players and online retailers. The handmade bicycle movement continues to grow and the online players are giving us some good bikes to choose from. I mentioned the Papillionaire above and now of course the fixie guys Mojo  have a Dutch bike.

Dutchie from Mojo

The fixed bike movement and the vintage bike (if that terms actually describes it) are moving hand in hand. The same company that sells this bike:

Creme fixie

Also sells this:

Creme mixte
Of course, many big players are getting the hint about this new trend (witness the Trek above) but it’s not filtering down to the stores of the Gold Coast. You almost have to do a bike buying trip to Melbourne these days just to get some sensible wheels.

The next time a friend of yours goes bike buying go along with them. When the salesman starts spruiking the benefits of multiple gears and suspension you’ll be there to assure them that biking is not just possible without these things but in fact is more enjoyable without them. But good luck finding anything that looks like this on the Gold Coast:

Allegro Bikes

One Comment

  1. Anonymous

    I fully agree with you whole heartedly. My current whip is a single speed, ridged hybrid with disc brakes.
    I have been trying for months now to find any descent Vintage bikes on the Gold Coast and there is not much here every bike shop I’ve been to has totally over priced them or try to talk you in to some thing different to what you want.

    My intention is to build a 50/60’s style bike but the modern reincarnation’s a ether to long
    or have the wrong geometry for what I plan on doing with it.

    Cheers Josh.

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