Review of the Papillionaire Cafe Racer

I was fortunate to be given a Papilionaire Cafe Racer for the week to ride and review. There was some talk about me reviewing the Papillionaire Classic but when I saw the Racer there was no doubt in my mind which one I wanted to take home. The bike has an old-timey romantic look of motorpacing with leather helmets on, of racing down country lanes in woolen jerseys. Not that they rode bikes like this when they did those things—but it’s how the mind works you see. Perhaps it also evokes cafe races from the 70s. I’ve had a lingering thought to make a bike with the classic 70s cafe racer as inspiration, perhaps to satisfy an unfulfilled desire to own a cafe racer without actually getting back into motorbikes. Given the glacial pace at which I progress on projects I probably will never build anything remotely evocative of anything but now, thankfully, I’ve had the Papillionaire to scratch that itch for me.

The Papillionaire Racer also brought to mind a couple of other bikes. The Pashley Guv’nor and the Linus Gaston sprang to mind. Anyway, whatever references the bike evoked in my mind it was all secondary to my desire to take it home and ride it.

How does the Papillionaire Ride?

Glad you asked. The riding felt a tad awkward at first. The bike rides pretty much as it looks, which is quite different from your average single-speed or fixie. The swept back handlebars and the forward curve of the fork make the bike steer like no other bike I ride. There’s something of a tiller effect involved. But it does steer just like you’d want it to. The whole funky old-timey feel is evoked every time you get on it. You begin to think that life really will slow down and run at your pace for a while. That maybe you’ll dink a friend on that sturdy rear rack and go fishing together at the river. You’d probably roll your sandwiches and soda pops up in a checkered hanky that was tied to a pole.

I have read that the Guv’nor can be a bit difficult to adapt to. No such problem with the Papillionaire Racer. You feel pretty cool riding the bike for starters, so you tend to head out on the flimsiest excuse. So you get a lot of practice in a small time. I’ve ridden mine to get drunk on sake at the cool new Japanese restaurant, chase the dogs around the parks, go looking for the missing dog that escaped, go to soccer and back, and just around the block and down the shops for the sake of riding it. I have very quickly adapted to the way it steers and can tell you it’s a stable and confidence inspiring ride. At first I was a bit shakey in the cornering, probably because I’m used to quicker steering bikes, but that went away within minutes and now I roll into corners with great confidence and style. I’ve taken to coming down the hill near me and rolling around and through the roundabout at speed just for the sheer pleasure of cycling. The bike can hold a lot of speed and corners the long sweepers like it was born to it, like it thinks it’s a Ducati cafe racer from the 70s.  You can also stand it up like a mountain bike and ride it through corners a bit sideways if you want to. The bike’s stable enough and goes with it. It has a fair bit of rubber and that helps. I’ve taken the dogs up through a path that is grass and trees and tried pushing it a bit. It doesn’t mind skipping out sideways a little on some loose gravel. The bike’s well under control and you can have a bit of fun with it.

What this translates to for any urban commuter is confidence for all the shitty paths. There are still some gravel bike paths around and there are plenty of paths strewn with tree debris and stuff  like leave litter that gets slippery when wet. The Racer will be your friend under in poor or treacherous conditions.

The bike I tested was a large but the cockpit isn’t large. I slid the seat back to mid-rails and the reach forward was about perfect. But I’m only 165cm tall so I’m no giant. It’s a more relaxed ride than I’m used to and for me that’s part of the fun. I’m already feeling so cool every time I get on the Papillionaire Racer so it doesn’t hurt to slow down and let it show.

If you’re used to upright bikes the Papillionaire Racer will feel a bit hunched. For me it’s bang on perfect but it is a intriguing blend of laid back bike with racer-low bars. The short cockpit prevents you from feeling like you’re reaching for the bars and to me it’s still pretty relaxed but if you’re after a more leisurely ride then check out the Papillionaire Classic.

The Papillionaire Racer

No doubt the bike is a conceit. The design owes a lot to a nostalgia we never had and evokes a bunch of references which have little to do with any bike I ever owned. But as a conceit it’s a good one and anyone who thinks that showing some style while riding is important will love this bike. Next time I see someone on a hybrid with a flouro vest and all those zip ties in their helmet I’m going to beg them to check out the Papillionaire website. You could not ride a Papillionaire Racer looking like that. They’d be straight out to buy some handmade shoes and a check shirt and the world would be a better place.

I haven’t mentioned the gears yet have I. Bit worrisome for me, this being my second bike review in a couple months with gears. To be honest, the last review was something of a departure for me but this bike belongs on my blog. My brief review of the Jelly Bean three-speed still remains one of the most read articles on the blog. And just look at the bike, it shouldn’t go back to Papillionaire really because it belongs in my bike shed. Or, at the very least, in my garden with the chickens:

My first foray on the bike was to the Japanese restaurant mentioned above. Here’s a picture of me at the bar. Some people say I look like a noted young Anne Frank expert but I say don’t be fooled by my youthful complexion. Besides, the only thing I know about Anne Frank is that if she were alive today she’d definitely read this blog. I don’t have an insulting collective noun for my readers but she could belong to it if there was one.

Rolling along next to my wife on the way to the bar it was nice to have a gear on the bike that wasn’t designed to go just that bit faster than my wife likes to go. It felt natural and comfortable to roll beside her and chat like a civilized human being for a change. There’s a lovely gear on the bike that is just right for cruising along next to your wife. For all I know this was the purpose for which it was designed. There’s also another gear just above it that is designed for motoring. The only problem is there is no gear in-between. In other words, I don’t have my sweet gear.


If the bike was mine I know I’d tinker with cogs and make sure I had my sweet gear or one similar to it. As with all internal hubs I’ve used (except perhaps the 8-speed Alfine) there are decently large jump between gears. The Nexus three-speed used on the Jelly Bean and the three-speed Papillionaires suffers the same problem. They’re designed to give all cyclists a wide range of usable gears, whereas I’d prefer a narrow range of gears designed around me. (And I want the rest of the world to revolve around me also.) In the week I owned the Papillionaire I never used more than two gears. If you’re new to bikes you wont come with your own set of prejudices regarding favorite gears. You’ll probably be happy to have a few extra rescue gears down low. If you’ve been riding for a while you might need to tinker with the gears or adjust your riding style. I don’t care which.

I was impressed by the brakes. The brakes on the Papillionaire Racer were the same Tektros seen on many other testers I’ve had. The levers were by Sturmey Archer and that made the difference. They’ve got a lot of leverage on them yet still feel comfortable in the hand. In use they felt very similar to the Shimano disc brakes on my Cannondale mountain bike, except without the bubble in the fluid that sometimes means nothing happens when you use them. Note to self, bleed brakes on weekend.

Most of this bike is the same as the Papillionaire Classic. The Classic gets different bars and a sprung seat, mudguards and a chain guard, but is otherwise the same bike. It’s a versatile build, showing how different two bikes can be with just a few tweaks. At Papillionaire’s Brisbane HQ I saw a Classic with the downward mounted bars of the Racer, a leather tool roll and a rear basket. You could ditch the rear basket (for me) but otherwise the bike was a classic and classy bike read to roll. Either a Classic with tweaks or a Racer with guards. Same bike either way really but a really cool ride whichever way you look at it.

Both bike share some classy finishing touches. There are the little things like the bell. It’s not one of those cheap little units put there because Australia design rules mandate bells. It’s a lovely bit of steel that suits the bike.

The frame is lugged for that genuine hand-made classic look. It’s a compromise of lugs and welding but it’s a good enough combination to make the bike work. If you’re reviewing a bike you look and think too closely about the bikes. For the normal owner this bike will look right and they’ll probably never worry about that complex meeting of tubes and lugs that made up a vintage bike’s bottom brackets. Besides, the bottom bracket on the Papillionaire frame is so beautifully constructed it serves to show how good the workmanship is on this bike (and I’m personally not the type to drool over lugs). Here is my almost mandatory piccy of the bottom bracket (showing small consistent welds):

While we’re discussing the construction let’s talk about the other side of this, which is the assembly. If you’re a Brisbane Papillionaire purchaser then you’re dealing with Paul Viner from ReVelo Cycles and you’re in good hands. I don’t think I’ve met a mechanic as fastidious and careful as Paul. I think you can roll away with your new Papillionaire knowing that things aren’t going to rattle loose or annoy you with alignment problems. As someone who always finds something that has to be tightened or straightened on every new bike I can say that this bike was perfect. I changed the seat height and adjusted the brake levers and never touched it subsequently. If Papillionaire’s Melbourne and Sydney bikes are assembled with such care then I’m impressed.

The other finishing touch that can’t go without commented is the seat. I’ve ridden and loved the Brooks leather saddle before and have been curious about the quality of the alternatives. Papillionaire have their own branded leather saddle and it’s a gooden. The shape is perfect and construction looks great. I don’t think you’ll be left craving for a Brooks after you’ve had this saddle.

Papillionaire Racer Review Summary Endy Bit

If we’re ever going to win the hearts and minds of non-cyclists then we’re going to have to show some style. We tried showing respect and caution and organizing ourselves into quaint little advocacy groups. We’ve tried getting pissed off and organizing into loud mobs. And it didn’t work. But if we all showed some style and looked like people that other people wanted to aspire to be, then we might drag a few over. If we all rode bikes with as much class and substance as the Papillionaire I think it would change the debate. Or at the very least we’d look better while doing it, so it’s a win either way.
So what I want to say to you is, get dressed up and get out on your Papillionaire. It’ll be good for everyone. They start at under $400 (though that’s without the leather saddle, which would in my opinion be a crime) and at that price it’s a good investment in our cycling futures. The Racer reviewed here is a limited edition so if you fancy one get into it quick smart. Just remember you can also dress down a Classic for a similar result, and then you get those gorgeous colour-matched mudguards. Here, go visit Papillionaire and have some fun in their shop dressing up bikes. It’s like dressing up Barbie only more fun.


  1. Alex

    Considering getting an 8-speed version of the latest cafe racers. Is $750 too crazy an amount for a first time rider who wants the ease of use of an internal gear hub while still living in the Hilly East of Melbourne? And at ~13kgs, is that a little heavy for a commute of any considerable distance (an average of 10kms, depending on where the wind takes me)?

    1. SSGC

      Hi Alex. I always reckon one of the worst mistakes new riders make is buying a bike that is too cheap. Some of the things they buy, I wouldn’t ride. You have to enjoy your cycling and a good bike is the best way to make this happen.

      Don’t worry about the weight too much. I don’t know what kind of shape you’re in but in my own case it’s not the weight of the bike that’s holding me back. Once I shed a few kilos (not to mention the backpack full of gear) then I’ll worry about whether my bike’s too tubby.

      A bike like this is a good place to start. It’s and easy to ride but an enjoyable one.

      When you say east of Melbourne, we’re not talking Dandenongs are we? We’re talking the hills of Mont Albert of some such?

  2. Alex

    Thanks for the quick reply! I’m around 186cm and just under 70kg and am currently ridiculously unfit but am no stranger to a high level of fitness and burning quads having played a lot of high-level volleyball in my teens. The hills I am referring to are the seasick-inducing ups and downs of the Ringwood area. It’s not a permanent situation, and a lot of my riding other than work will be to the train and then the more flat inner suburbs.

    Something I’ve read (and I’m aware I light be asking the wrong place considering this is single speeds and 3 speeds) is that internal gear hubs can cause drag. Is this something that’s going to make me feel sluggish and gross trying to travel up hills and the like? I love the feeling that zipping around on a bike gives me, hence wanting it to be lightweight and smooth and shiny and nice.

    Thanks for the help, by the way. I’ve been enjoying your articles for months in search for a goody.

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