Sunday, November 22, 2009

Thoughts on the Retrovelo Paul

I have been intrigued with the Leipzig-based Retrovelo since having discovered some photos of their bicycles online this past spring. Something about them suggested both quality and fun, with more than a touch of aesthetic fetishism. (I agree completely with Clever Cycles' suggestion that the colours "evoke lumberjacks and German shepherds and underwear")

Having recently learned that Retrovelo is sold in Vienna, it occurred to me that my velo-friend Anna - who has been considering a new bike for some time - might like to try one. Well, after test-riding this white Retrovelo Paul, Anna is seriously considering ordering the lady's version (Paula) and you can help her choose the colour here!

As for me, I did not test-ride one, as the frames in stock were too large for me. But I did sit on it inside the store and pedaled it for a distance of a couple of yards. I also spent a great deal of time ogling, touching, and photographing the bike, and have thus formed a few impressions which I outline here for those interested.

Seeing Paul in person, the impression of quality that I had gotten from the photos was, for the most part, confirmed. The bicycles are beautifully designed and seem to be very well constructed, with great attention to detail. You can read more about the gorgeous colour choices, the Schwalbe Fat Frank tires, and other aspects, on Retrovelo's website. The saddle is a Brooks B67, available in black or brown.

Retrovelo has the nicest lugs I have seen on a modern utility bike. I admit they are nicer than my Pashley's (which are a bit more plain). No headbadge though; just a sticker.

The seat cluster. Those who dislike the bolted rear triangle will especially appreciate this.

One of my favourite features in the Retrovelo is this triple plated fork. I think it's just beautiful and makes this bicycle stand out from others.

Chainguard with logo.

Proprietary bell - another nice touch. (That's me and Anna in the reflection.)

Awesome rear rack. This is my favourite rear rack design for a utility bicycle, seen on many older Dutch bikes and also on Velorbis. If anyone knows where I can buy such a rack just on its own, please let me know.

And here is the only part of the bike I am not crazy about: the stem and handlebar set-up. I would prefer a classic quill stem, and do not like that welded vertical tip of the stem joint that sticks out. I am also not wild about the very wide cruiser-style handlebars and would prefer the more elegant North Roads here. I know that the stem and handlebars are intentional design elements on the part of Retrovelo that are meant to evoke early mountain bikes - but what can I say, the look just does not appeal to me. If I were to get the Retrovelo, I would switch out the stem and bars to a classic quill and North Roads.

Judging by Anna's comments, the Retrovelo is everything it promises in terms of performance: a true beauty with the utility of a Dutch bicycle, the shock absorption of a first generation mountain bike, and the maneuverability of a sporty roadster. The fast Schwalbe Fat Franks make it a pleasure to ride over cobblestones. The dynamo-powered front and rear lights are super convenient. The hub gearing (3 or 7 speed Shimano hub) and brakes are practical and low-maintenance for all-weather city cycling. On the downside, the chain is not fully enclosed and the bicycle does not come with dressguards (though the latter can be easily retrofitted). Also, to my surprise, the bike was as heavy to lift as my Pashley (I had been under the impression that it would be lighter).

I am truly curious now to see (and hopefully ride!) the lady's version of these bicycles. Selfishly, I am hoping that Anna orders and receives her Paula by the next time I am in Vienna and permits me to ride it. Don't forget to help her choose the colour!

27 comments:

  1. The Retrovelo Paula is the first Dutch-style (broadly used term here) bike I found online and fell in love with, via that Clever Cycles post. The day I bought Oma, I test rode a Paula, too. I chose Oma for the complete utility package, but the Paula is a super fun bike.

    ReplyDelete
  2. HI Filigree, nice pics and good details. Most of the features you've pointed out really appeal to me too - I love the chainguard particularly. This is a thoughtfully-designed, pretty, practical and clearly easy-to-ride bike. But I do see what you mean about the stem and handlebar. The handlebars look a little wide for the bike. That little vertical bit sticking out bemuses me too; why, I wonder, when everything else on the bike is elegant (eg that superb rear rack) and blends together? No doubt the designer thought it added something.

    ReplyDelete
  3. That does look like a sweet bike! And, yes, I love the rack and the fork crown.

    Even though it's a utility bike, I'm struck by how some of its features (such as the lugs and seat cluster) harken to classic road bikes.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I wonder how many other readers have or will comment on the weight issue... My diamond-frame Pashley is about 5 lbs heavier than Filigree's u-frame Pashley, so, by her comparison alone (and--of course--imagining that the Paul-Paula weight relationship is the same as with the Pashleys!), Paul represents a weight saving of at least 5 lbs. This seems consistent with Retrovelo using cro-moly instead of hi-ten on the frame. Components (I am looking at you, hubs!) are where both brands quickly accumulate real-world weight. I imagine Retrovelo's wheels are also slightly lighter than Pashley's heavy-duty 28" Westwood rims + Marathon Plus hogs. And if you fill those Fat Franks with helium...

    ReplyDelete
  5. Also:

    Add me to the list of people who feel unsure about the stem & handlebars, although I did read Retrovelo's web site where they explain that the inspiration were the cruisers converted to zero-gen mountain bikes. In other words, if you think these remind you of cruiser bars, these ARE cruiser bars!

    A body-painted stem is always a classy feature, so it's a bit surprising that I feel so conflicted about Retrovelo's rendition of this feature. My Pashley has a "riser" stem, too, and yet somehow I find it to be less of an abomination onto the quill stem. These are all matters of personal taste, of course, not to be confused with serious comments.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Dottie - How was Paula in terms of performance compared to the Azor Oma and Rivendell Betty Foy? Did you find it "agile"?

    Carinthia - The way I understand it, the handlebar set-up was taken from a style used on very early mountain bikes. Personally I think that the overall look of the bike - particularly the loop frame - calls for a different set-up, but I guess I understand the cool factor.

    Justine - I would love to see this seat cluster on more utility bikes.

    MDI - I really want to try a step-through model now and compare it to my Pashley. If the weight is the same, I wonder about the handling.

    ReplyDelete
  7. MDI - The Retrovelo catalog lists the 7 speed Paula as weighing 18.1 kg, Paul as 18.0 kg. The 8-speed hub adds weight: 18.3 and 18.2 respectively. The single-speed Paul is only 14.6 kg. Those hubs are heavy. When comparing these weights to Pashley's bear in mind that German bikes are weighed without pedals and extra's (rear racks for instance...). Don't know why.
    Both Paul and Paula are short bikes. They should be more agile than Dutch, i.e. made in Holland bikes which usually have a longer wheelbase - unless based on a Chinese made aluminum frame.
    Retrovelo's handlebar setup while understandable from a design point of view, is a missed opportunity. Dutch bikes in this price range all have joints allowing multiple setups without tools. For easy touring leave the handlebars high, for speed drop them lower and forward.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Frits - Interesting about the wheel base and about different standards for reporting weight. Also odd that the female model is quoted as being heavier than the male - I thought usually they were lighter? That is certainly the case with Pashley: my Princess is considerably lighter than my husband's Roadster.

    ReplyDelete
  9. dukiebiddle said...

    A lot of those design elements go beyond evocation and make the Paul a bit of a hybred between a first generation mountain bike and utility bike. That bike is in many ways exactly what I've tried to turn my old mountain bike into, only much better. I think I'm a little bit in love, and I don't even care about the aesthetic elements. It's the perfect machine.

    ReplyDelete
  10. dukiebiddle said...

    ... or it would be perfect after a good uglification and replacing that Brooks with a generic $20 saddle. ;-)

    ReplyDelete
  11. And a sticker that says Huffy.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Put a bright orange Walmart "paid" sticker across the frame and a partially rubbed off "$94.23" sticker somewhere under the "Made in China" decal.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Uglyfication and "replacing that Brooks with a generic $20 saddle"?? Blasphemy I tell you, blasphemy! I look at the Paul and think: Nitto stem, Moustache bars, and leather bar tape.

    Jokes aside, I too think that these bikes in many ways make the perfect machine. But when I asked the shop how many of these they sold, their answer was "not many". Their reasoning behind that, is that Vienna is too hilly for Dutch style bicycles.

    ReplyDelete
  14. It just occurred to me: maybe the ugly welds on the stem & rack are because these are aluminum parts (and hence can be justified from a weight-saving perspective)! Can someone take a magnet to their Retrovelo please? :)

    ReplyDelete
  15. If the headbadge sticker is removable it's a perfect spot for a personalized headbadge. They even make them in sterling silver. Yummy!

    ReplyDelete
  16. I wondered why this bike seemed so familiar, when I realized it was the first bike of my youth, a fat-tired Western Auto that at 5yrs old I had to lean against the house to climb on and push off. To stop was to fall off.
    This Retrovelo Paul is about as perfect and basic a bike as there can be. I hope they sell a million, so I can buy one used.

    ReplyDelete
  17. As for weight: when two bikes have about the same size and are made of the same tubes, the diamond frame will contain a short end of tubing less than the diamond frame. That I think explains why Paula is just a little bit heavier than Paul. Retrovelo offers very little choice in sizes and models.
    Re sales in Austria: don't you think price is also a limiting factor? A 8-speed Paula without rear rack is 1330 euro here in Holland, a third more than a fully equipped Gazelle/Batavus/Sparta/Azor would cost. Prices tend to be close throughout the EU. And the paint wouldn't be matte too (this sounds silly but last week I saw two basic Azors, what they call their lug frame and WorkCycles names Secret Service, one shiny black and one matte black - the matte one looked so much cheaper).

    ReplyDelete
  18. I am posing with a Paula in this avatar. Love, love, loved the bike. Though I only did a test ride I would say it's a little lighter and more agile than Dottie's Oma -- but like the Oma you can feel the quality when you ride it, since all the components are top-notch and work well together. Good choice Anna!

    ReplyDelete
  19. Frits - My initial thought was the price as well, but according to the bike shop owners this is not the issue. For example, they do not even bother importing the "real" Dutch bikes such as Batavus, Azor and Gazelle, because those do not sell well in Vienna at all.

    Charlotte - I agree re the personalised headbadge. I will definitely be getting a silver one for my custom mixte.

    Trisha - Cool, I see that now! Nice red bike.

    Dave - Neat : ) I think the new ones are a bit faster and better quality though.

    ReplyDelete
  20. dukiebiddle said...

    "and a sticker that says Huffy"

    "Put a bright orange Walmart "paid" across the frame..."

    Stop it. You're turning me on. ;-)

    When I look at this frame I see '82 Stumpjumper. To me, this is an early model mountain bike, only with city bike hubs, a couple of prittified design elements and urbanized, which perhaps explains the stem and the sticker headbadge. You take those two design elements away and this bike is no longer recognizable to its lineage.

    ReplyDelete
  21. dukiebiddle - What about the ladies' versions then? I do not remember any loop frame mountain bikes : )

    ReplyDelete
  22. dukiebiddle said...

    Well there you go. I look at a picture of the Paula and I don't see a mountain bike at all.

    You women shouldn't be riding mtb bikes anyway. I hear extreme sports cause hysteria.

    ...kidding!

    ReplyDelete
  23. Ah, apparently you have not seen my lust for the Rivendell Bombadil! A little hysteria can be a good thing, especially in Vienna.

    ReplyDelete
  24. dukiebiddle said...

    Yes, the Bonbadil... that frame really does it does it for me. Except that headbadge, on a mountain frame... now, THAT is sacrilege. It's like jewelry on a man, or frills on a firemen's coat. ;-)

    ReplyDelete
  25. I agree with the handlebar. Looks weird, but feels nice riding it :).

    ReplyDelete
  26. Oh, I'm so late in answering your question. The Retrovelo is not nearly as agile-feeling as the Rivendell, but much more so than my Dutch bike. I went for Oma because the Retrovelo lacked the enveloping feeling I wanted in an everyday bike, had only a chain guard (not fully protected from the weather), and no front rack capability.

    If I were rich, I would own and ride often the Retrovelo :)

    ReplyDelete
  27. This is an update to an old post. We have experience with the Retrovelo "Classic Series" Paul and Paula, and Retrovelo's "Modern Series" Alfons. We also own a Workcycles Secret Service ladies model for comparison.

    We find the Retrovelo's are much lighter and more agile compared to the sturdy Workcycles bikes - and the Secret Service is one of their lighter, more agile offerings. The Secret Service would be a better choice to leave parked outside everyday for 20 years with its fully enclosed chain guard. I feel the Secret Service could tote more weight with the optional, frame-mounted front rack and stout rear rack. Both bikes come with excellent front and rear dynamo-powered lights.

    We purchased the Paul and Paula as 8-speeds. Their lugged frame is CroMo steel. The build quality, fit and finish of all the Retrovelos is extremely high compared to what is otherwise available in the USA, being surpassed only by $4,000+ custom-frame bikes, in my opinion. There is virtually no plastic on the Retrovelo bikes. The fenders are powdered coated stainless steel that will last a lifetime. The optional CroMo steel rear rack is very sturdy, although it is missing a place to clip the lower hook of a pannier. The handlebars on the Paul have too much pull back or sweep for my 6'4" size, but seem fine for a woman on the Paula. Do figure an upfront seating position, which is excellent for safety in traffic, but not so great bucking a strong headwind on a long journey (say 10+ miles). Not an issue if you make a short city commute, or ride for fitness.

    The higher end Alfons offers a double-butted CroMo frame, and is noticeably lighter than the Paul. Retrovelo also offers the Anna as a companion to the Alfons, which has a mixte frame. The Alfons comes with handlebars that are a little straighter than the Paul, and allow a little more lean forward.

    Both the Paul/Paula and Alfons/Anna bikes have the excellent Fat Frank tires, which I find fabulous for riding in urban conditions. Contrary to conventional wisdom, I find I ride faster in typical city conditions with the large Fat Franks, than old fashioned skinny tires, as they run smooth and absorb the bumps and potholes so much better. When I rode high pressure, narrow tires, I constantly had to slow down for the bumps to prevent severe jarring and even pinch flats and broken spokes on occasion.

    Both the Retrovelos and the Workcycles Secret Service come with excellent lights powered by a hub dynamo.

    The Alfons comes with a Shimano Alfine 11-speed internal gear hub, vs. the Shimano Nexus 8-speed in the Paula and Paula. After some research, I found out the gearing in the Nexus 8 and Alfine 11 is virtually the same, except the Alfine 11 has three more gears at the top end. A waste for this type of bike, in my view. What is really needed is more low gearing for climbing hills, especially laden down. To get the lower gearing, I swapped the 42T chainring on the Alfons for a 39T, which is contrary to Shimano's recommendations, but has worked great here in hilly Seattle. I ride the Paul in flat Tucson and the Nexus 8-speed works great as-is.

    I do want to correct some misconceptions mentioned above. There are no cheesy "stickers" on the Retrovelo's, the head badge and all labeling is screened or painted on. Also, the stem is a quill type, and is adjustable up and down in height. The stems can be ordered in short (80 mm) and long (100 mm) lengths, so make sure your bike dealer takes the time to figure out the correct length for you.

    ReplyDelete