Monday, November 30, 2009

All the Leaves Are Brown

Looks like the foliage season is officially over.

All the leaves are brown (yes, and the sky is grey la-la-la). And while I would not go so far as to say this makes me dream of moving to California, I do find myself curious - for the first time in my life - about what it would be to like to live in that year-round cycling paradise where the Rivendells roam free with the carefree riders upon them wearing nothing but the thinnest layer of soft merino. But these are just idle thoughts really; I need seasons and I love the winter. It's just that this bleh season between the beautiful leaves and the arrival of snow can be a little dreary.

As you can see, Eustacia Vye is doing well, and the gray weather does not bother her too much. She is especially proud of having perfected the act of carrying my satchel in her basket. We have figured out a way to shove it in sideways and diagonally, so that only a corner sticks out. I am hoping that my next laptop (the current one is slowly but surely dying) will be the smaller MacBook Air, which will solve my transportation difficulties altogether.

One thing I keep forgetting to comment on, is cycling in a long coat. All of my cold-season coats are long - with the hem ending either just at the knees or below. I was nervous about cycling in them, but I am glad to report that it's been just fine. My Pashley and vintage Raleigh have skirt-guards, but the Globe I rode in Vienna did not, and even that was problem-free. I think that wool coats are too stiff to fly into the spokes, but I am curious whether other people have had this happen? Also, I find that the heavy wool texture of my coats has excellent non-slip properties, so that I can wear even the silkiest skirts underneath and not worry about sliding on the saddle. So really, give it a try - winter outerwear is great!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Metropolitan

The weather here has been awful since I've returned from Vienna. So while I've used my bicycle to get where I need to go, the long "welcome home" ride I fantasized about does not seem to be in the cards. Stretches like this remind me to take advantage of good weather whenever possible, and so I offer these photos from one of the nicer cycling days we had at the beginning of the month.

These photos were taken in front of the Metropolitan Storage Warehouse in Cambridge, Mass., which is a local landmark of sorts and has been functioning since 1917.

We do not usually have a good reason to visit this area, but I was intrigued by the Vassar Street bike path controversy that I had read about on Chic Cyclist and I wanted to show it to the Co-Habitant. To summarise, the Vassar Street path is criticised because it is "European style" - running mostly on the sidewalk and therefore conflicting with both pedestrian traffic and with the cars that frequently pull in and out of the various parking lots that cross the path. Compared to what I had been expecting, the path is actually not so bad in person. In fact, it is set up like a typical bike path in Vienna. The main issue is that cyclists must keep to a fairly low speed in order to ride on the path safely during peak traffic times - and Americans are simply not used to cycling at such low speeds and continue to ride at a brisk pace.

I am not certain what my stance is on the Vassar Street critique; it is a complicated issue. But I do enjoy cycling through the MIT/ Cambridgeport neighborhood during non-traffic hours. When these streets are empty, I feel that the personalities of all the warehouses and industrial sites and contemporary constructions really come out, and the abandoned urban landscape becomes "communicative". Is it all in my head? Maybe so. But that does not make the experience any less interesting.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The "Born Again" Moment

Some of you were surprised when I mentioned in a recent post that I only began cycling again in Spring 2009 - so I thought it would be fun to share my "born again" moment. The Co-Habitant and I developed a huge batch of film for one of our art projects earlier this week, and it turned out that one roll contained these pictures from 8 months ago - pictures of my first real bicycle ride after not having cycled in 12 years.

After testing a coupe of bicycles on the premises of local bike shops, we finally took the plunge and rented a his and hers KHS Green, to see how feasible it would be for us to travel by bike round Boston. These shots were taken along the Charles River trail.

It was an unseasonably warm day, and within the first half hour of the ride my jacket was folded up and tucked under the spring on the rear rack. Also within the first half hour of the ride, I knew that this was "it". How could I have lived without a bicycle thus far? And what would I do when the time came to return the rental?

The day after these photos were taken, my search for a new bicycle began in earnest, and that is how this weblog was born: It was initially meant to be a collection of reviews and photos of beautiful, functional bicycles for people with similar skill levels to mine and with the same beginner anxieties. I guess my viewpoint has progressed a bit since then, and I have gotten much more into "cycling culture" than I had anticipated. But still, the whole point of this website is that I am not an expert and do not have a great deal of cycling experience - which hopefully makes me unintimidating and approachable to new readers curious about bicycles.

The Co-Habitant and I had been toying with the idea of bikes on and off for years. But what finally made me start cycling had nothing to do with the practical considerations this involved. It was a result of a very personal, visceral sense of pure joy - which apparently has been captured on film quite nicely! Seeing these shots was a nice surprise; we had forgotten that we took them. And it was especially timely before Thanksgiving, as I am most grateful for the role bicycles have played in my life this year.

Enjoy your week-end, and make sure to feed your bicycles some turkey. They don't like to feel left out!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Wisteria Lane

It is good to be back in Boston, just in time for Thanksgiving. We are off to visit family - but first, I wanted to share this:

I spotted this unseasonably floral bicycle in scenic Somerville. It is a Batavus Old Dutch, in "head-to-toe" lilac. The pannier-basket is decorated with garlands of faux wisteria.

When it comes to pastel purple, the owner obviously follows the "more is more" principle - which I, for one, very much appreciate on dreary November days like today. (I wonder whether colourful bicycles could be used to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder, just like "light therapy"?)

Hooray for lovely bicycles and have a good Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Flohmarkt Finds

Vienna has a passion for flea markets, and lots of them pop up at different times of the year - often set up like neighborhood festivals, with food stalls and music. The big year-round flea market is next to the famous outdoor Naschmarkt in the city center. It is open every Saturday and it is enormous - with stalls stretching as far as the eye can see selling everything from antique silverware and gramophones, to locally made wool socks and Chinese designer knock-offs.

I walked through the Flohmarkt this Saturday on my way to lunch with a friend, and spotted two interesting Austrian bicycles. The first is a very old Steyr.

I am thinking this can't be later than 1920's, because of the "spoon brake" - that single rod brake with just a pad to stop the wheel from spinning. Any opinions?

On the headbadge is a woman with a shepherd's staff. She looks either sleepy or grumpy, which I thought was funny. I have seen Steyr bicycles in Vienna before, but none quite this old.

The second bike was this all-green Bergkönig ("Mountian King").

Could this be the original mountain bike? Hmm...

The handlebars are flat-ish and with a short reach, once again suggesting a mountain bike design. The grips are real rubber and are partly melted. Dynamo powered lighting; side-pull caliper brakes.

The sprung leather saddle is unmarked. Very neat that even the springs and the seat post are painted green. Not sure what that metal wrap is on the top tube - any ideas?

As I was leaving the market, the sun finally came out, so I snapped some shots from the U-Bahn platform.

Here is another. I have been to this flea market many times, but this was the first time I've noticed vintage bikes. Despite the rust, I think they are pretty good finds for someone local who has the room for them. I would love to find out more about their history, so if you have any information please share.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Cycling Lessons From Miss Brodie

Don't know whether others have seen the classic film, The Prime of Jean Brodie, based on the novel by Muriel Spark. It ends badly, and the main character - a deluded school mistress in 1930s Scottland - is not somebody one would strive to emulate. But I do admire her beautiful cycling skills! In fact, the opening scene of the film - where Miss Brody is shown gracefully cycling to the school where she teaches on a loop-frame bicycle with a basket - has no doubt influenced my own choice of bicycle and my notion of what "riding a bicycle" should be like. So here are some stills from the sequence that inspired me.

Miss Brodie mounts her bicycle with ease using the proper Sheldon Brown method. Her long, narrow skirt does not seem to impede the mounting maneuver one bit.

Notice how straight her leg is on the pedal as she cycles: completely extended. She would definitely not be able to reach the ground with her toe in traffic.

Ah, here she indicates that she is about to stop. Look at all that stuff on her bike! Rolls of paper in the basket, and what looks like a wooden trunk strapped to the rear rack. You can hardly tell due to the bad quality of these images, but it looks like her bicycle has all blackout parts on it. Does anybody know what year they began doing that?

To get off the bicycle, she takes her right foot off the pedal and swings the leg over the frame while the bicycle is still in motion.

Then she coasts for a bit in this standing position - with the left foot on the left pedal and the right foot supposedly in the air next to it? - until she hops off and the bicycle comes to a stop. Impressive! - and no way can I pull that off.

In the film, one of Miss Brodie's catch-phrases was that she was "a woman in her prime" - even though she was distinctly old-maidish by 1930s standards. My theory is that her cycling is what kept her feeling young and beautiful.

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!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Specialized Globe Haul: Test Ride Report

This is the Specialized Globe Haul II that I rode in Vienna while Anna tested out the Retrovelo. I chose it because it was one of the most interesting other bikes in the shop, because it fit me, and because I liked the colour scheme: the olive drab frame, cream tires and brown accessories look quite nice together. As you can see, it is mixte-esque in construction and has derailleur gearing (the Shimano Alivio group; 3 in the front and 8 in the rear). The frame is aluminum.

I did not get a clear photo of the gear shifters, but they are plastic indexed thumb shifters (located on the handlebars); not sure of the manufacturer. Cane Creek headset. Some of the cables are internally routed, which is a nice touch.

Rear brake; internal cable routing. As you can see, the seat cluster is unusual; I am not even certain the term "seat cluster" applies here? The top tube sort of flows past the seat tube and diverges into the rear stays.

As the name of this bicycle suggests, its main purpose is to haul things. Therefore its most noticeable feature is the elaborate wood-topped rack that is built into the frame itself. The rack is rated for a 50kg (112lb) load.

Here is a better look at how the rack is integrated into the frame.

The idea is pretty neat and from a distance it looks nice. But those welding marks really don't do it for me - which should come as no surprise to those familiar with my tastes. I understand that this is a matter of personal choice though, and that some people like them.

Straigh unicrown fork; 700C wheels; fenders; caliper brakes. The tires are cream Specialized Nimbus 700C x 35mm. They felt great until we had to ride on a stretch of the road that was all cobblestones. That felt aweful - but I am not certain whether to blame the tires alone, or whether the aluminum frame also plays a role. I am curious what the experts think.

Front view. The handlebars are swept back, North Road style. There is a small bell, and an LED light is cleverly integrated into the handlebar setup.

Close-up of the headlight. A neat, utilitarian look that is in keeping with the rest of the bike's design, I think.

Globe brown rubber grips, which match the Specialized brown pleather saddle. I did not get a close-up of the saddle, but what surprised me about it is that it is pretty narrow for an upright bike and is more like a roadbike saddle.

Here is another shot of the rear rack, whichI think is the Haul's coolest feature. LED tail light.

I rode the Haul around Vienna for close to 2 hours, and you can find loads of photos of us in motion here and here. Overall it is a comfortable and user-friendly bicycle: stable, easy to operate, light to carry, fast on hills, fast to accelerate, great braking power, and maneuverable. I also think that the design is quite harmonious: well proportioned, good lines, pleasing to the eye, and nicely colour-coordinated. As I mentioned earlier, the only problem for me was the cobblestones: My teeth were chattering and I considered walking the bike at several points. This would be an issue if your city has cobblestones - so take that into consideration. Personally, I am not attracted to welded aluminum bicycles - but that is a matter of taste. As far as mass-produced bicycles go, the Globe Haul seems like a good, interestingly designed bike.