Sunday, August 22, 2010

Ye Olde Fantastic Bikeshoppe! A Visit to Portland Velocipede

[edited to add: Portland Velocipede became a sponsor of this website in January 2011. This post was written prior to that time.]

We were in Portland, Maine (the real Portland!) over the weekend, and stopped by the Portland Velocipede. The establishment is just half a year old, but already an iconic presence.

Portland Velocipede focuses exclusively on transportation cycling. They sell Pashley, Gazelle, Batavus, Abici, Linus, CiviaBrompton and Bakfiets - as well as accessories by Brooks, Velo OrangeBasil, Po CampoNutcase, and more. As far as I know, no other bike shop on the East coast outside of NYC stocks this type of merchandise all at once.

The shop occupies a huge, warehouse-style space that was once an art gallery, and they certainly make good use of that space. Almost an entire wing is dedicated to a flock of Pashleys. The Roadster, the Guv'nor, the Princess, and even the Tube Rider - they have them all.

In another part of the shop stands a herd of Gazelles, as well as several Batavus models (the Old Dutch, the Flyslan, the Bub and the Personal Delivery).

The famous "paperclip bike" (Batavus Bub), suspended from the ceiling.

For me, the main point of interest were the Abici bicycles, which I had never seen in person before. This shot reminds me of the "I want candy" scene in Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette. The colours, the colours! Well, I have now not only seen an Abici bicycle in person, but have ridden one all over Portland.  I will post a test ride report shortly.

I had also never seen a Bakfiets in person before. Those things are beautiful! The Co-Habitant immediately wanted to cart me around in one, but I opted out of that form of entertainment. (Well, maybe next time!)

Instead I examined the Gazelle Toer Populair, which is the contemporary version of my Gazelle A-Touren. It saddened me to see that the Gazelles currently in production are not manufactured in the same manner as my late 1990's model. The "loop connector" is now welded rather than lugged, and the seat cluster is partly welded as well.  It is still a beautiful bicycle, but why are manufacturers of classic bicycles moving in this direction? I suppose it cuts costs, and they figure customers will not notice or will not care? It is a sad thing to lose such beautiful details. Thankfully, the fork crown on the Gazelle is still lugged and chromed with the little embossed gazelles on it, and its lugwork elsewhere has remained the same as well.

Having now seen Gazelle, Batavus and Pashley side-by-side, I would say that the quality of craftsmanship is by far the highest on the Pashley, with Gazelle in second place and Batavus in third. If I had to buy a new bicycle today and choose from what is available in American shops, I would probably still choose a Pashley Princess (albeit I would now go for the largest, 22" frame).

Whether you turn your eye to the bicycles, to the accessories, or to the clothing, Portland Velocipede is a sea of gorgeous colours and inviting textures.

As I wandered around the shop I felt as if I was lost in some alternate universe: Too much, too beautiful! Some of the items I knew about, but have never seen in person - and now here they were, all together. Other items were new to me, such as the clothing line by Sheila Moon (pictured above), and a spectacular line of panniers from Linus. I wish I'd had the presence of mind to photograph it all systematically, but I am a mere mortal and cannot be expected to remain calm in this kind of bike shop - so this is what you get. As mentioned earlier, we did extensively test-ride bicycles: I rode a lilac Abici and the Co-Habitant rode a Pashley Guv'nor, so reports are forthcoming.

Amazingly, the charming owners (Gillian and Josh) trusted us not to abscond with their precious candy-coloured inventory - for which we thank them!  We also thank them for establishing this wonderful shop in New England, and for all the energy and care they obviously put into it. Portland Velocipede is a magical place and an invaluable resource for those interested in classic transportation bicycles. 

30 comments:

  1. That shop sounds like so much fun to visit. Next time I'm in Maine I'll have to stop in.

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  2. Oh, awesome, this is totally how I felt when Adeline Adeline opened. That looks like a beautiful and thoughtful shop. I love Portland, ME.

    I am interested in your impression of the Abici -- I found it really sporty and light and very different from other city bikes I've tried. I believe quite strongly that the acqua singlespeed would be very happy with me. :)

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  3. I highly recommend taking a bakfiet for a spin! At first riding in the bucket is definitely a new experience. You are very low to the ground and I at least found this coupled with the lack of control to be frightening! But you get used to it after a while and it is smooth sailing from then on!
    Also riding it is like a dream, they are the epitome of civilized riding!
    I love my bakfiet and recommend it to everyone!

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  4. Kate - Yes, I am regretful now of not having ridden in the Bakfiets. But we will be in Portland again soon, so maybe next time.

    neighbourtease - Yes, it was exactly as you describe. Almost like a roadbike that happens to be a loop frame.

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  5. Such a fun looking shop full of beautiful bicycles!

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  6. That does look like a really inspiring shop. And the owners look *happy*.

    The Abici Donna frame reminds me of that cute 60s Italian city bike with the fabulous lugs I pointed out on the local Craigslist.
    (which is still available at a reduced price as of today, actually.)
    They do have some of the best colors- and certainly give Retrovelo and Achielle some fine competition for sheer prettiness.


    Looking forward to your reviews!

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  7. alas i'm no longer a cambridge-somervillian, but what's the deal with this place?
    http://OldRoads.com/small_retail.html

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  8. Looks like a similar selection of stuff to Clever Cycles in the not real Portland :) They have some Sheila Moon stuff as well, and I have the Linus panniers on my Raleigh, purchased from them. Looks like a fantastic shop.

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  9. Are there bicycle shops in NYC that stock this variety of items for bicycling?

    I'll be in NY in October - I'm open to suggestion if there are bicycle shops worth visiting.

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  10. Anon,

    That place (not really sure of the name, I call it Cambridge Used Bicycles :) ) is a gem! It's incredible. The guys who run it are very friendly and helpful and provide excellent vintage rides and service at great prices!

    It's *the only* bike shop in the city that I recommend to *everyone* without hesitation.

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  11. I really liked the Abici as well-- beautiful and sporty (slightly steeper geometry, I think) while retaining an upright riding position. They are the classic Italian city bicycle, meant to navigate those cities' streets and hills with ease and style. When I researched it further, I learned that they may not be as suitable for the everyday cyclist who rides in all weather; the chain is not fully enclosed; caliper brakes; etc. Rust and rain are not such big issues in many Italian cities as they are in English/Northern European ones. For someone with indoor bike storeage who uses it primarily, in summer, it's a great choice. I do have a bit of Abici envy, too....gorgeous bicyles! It looks like a wonderful shop. I'm looking forward to your review.

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  12. What a great blog you have here. I only came via a post you made in Welshies blog, but have linked yours in mine. Im really looking forward to reading some back posts you made. Love the bikes, both in the shop and your own.

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  13. I would love to hear more about those Linus panniers. What did you think of the roll up ones, or the ones that just attach at the side. I know you have had your eyes on panniers recently, so share your discriminating thoughts!

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  14. One thing that is interesting to me about the Abici is how much steeper the seat tube angle is on the loop frame is than it is on the diamond frame. When you see them next to each other it's really quite striking. I always assume that a diamond frame's inherent strength can support more relaxed geometry but would love to hear from someone more informed.

    @ Stephen

    http://www.adelineadeline.com in Tribeca.

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  15. Hi, just wondering why you would move up to the larger size in the Pashley. I own a Pashley and although it is the correct size for my height I always wish the handlebars came to me rather then me going to them. I currently have them set very high and this is more comfortable however, I think that a larger bike size may have been a better fit. I have had the bike over a year and I'm always moving the seat and the bars to try and adjust for the best ride. I totally agree with a past post you wrote about needing to ride a bike much longer then the test ride at the store. What seems like a great fit on a short test ride is not so perfect on a longer 10-18 mile ride. Also love this bike shop in Portland - I'll have to stop in when I'm up there in September. Linda

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  16. Yes, sadly, Gazelle's management would probably tell you that, indeed, the vast majority of their customers do not care that much about lugs. Or at least, not enough to pay a premium for them. Not enough for them to keep offering lugged bikes. Gazelle is one of the world's largest bike manufacturers; they are not niche marketers to retro-grouches.

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  17. Jeanette - my Abici single speed has both the caliper brake and coaster brake, and the chain is enclosed enough that I ride it in most weather. I've had no problems with it in the rain (but the coaster brake saved the day). These descriptions are all very accurate. Though I have both a Dutch bike and a road bike, the Abici is redundant with neither. It's my light and zippy bike that I use for all city riding except when shopping or in winter weather.

    And Stephen - though everyone will send you to Adeline Adeline (and it really is the right choice if you can only see one), you might find some interesting options at Rolling Orange and Mod Squad as well if you're doing the bike shop tour of NYC.

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  18. Stephen:
    Bicycle store tourism -- what fun!

    NYC candidates for your visit, that specialize in European and US city bicycles are:

    - http://www.adelineadeline.com/ in Tribeca(I got my bike here)
    http://hudsonurbanbicycles.com/ in the West Village
    and in Brooklyn, if you want to venture over the bridge:
    http://www.rollingorangebikes.com/

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  19. Re Abici : As far I can tell, the frame is made by Taurus (http://www.taurusbiciclette.it/), an old italian brand which sells frame to various labels (Abici, Oro Cicli, bellacio...), like Azor in Holland.

    Re Gazelle. I don't know in the US, but in Europe a Pashley is more expensive than a Gazelle or a Batavus. The Frames used by the dutch brands for those up-market 8 speeds export models are actualy the same found with the cheap single speed workhorses sold on their domestic market.

    Oh, and great store indeed !

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  20. Linda - When I was buying the Pashley, I was just getting comfortable riding a bike again after a 13 year hiatus, and felt that I needed to have both feet - or at least both toes - on the ground when stopped. The 20" frame made that possible, but not the 22" frame. My cycling skills and ability to balance when stopped have improved since then, and I have discovered that larger frames are a better fit for me. In general, I now try to get the largest frame I can get away with - it just feels more comfortable for my body type.

    Philippe - As far as I know, Bella Ciao and Abici are not made by the same manufacturer. I will double check on that though.

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  21. FYI, just about any of Fourth Floor Distribution's 86 or so retailers across the USA have the same products available to them! Of course, the real fun stuff comes in to Curbside in Toronto only, but see if you can find your LBS on the map:

    http://www.onthefourth.com/dealers.html

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  22. Mike - In theory that's true (although Fourth Floor Distribution do not list Gazelle or Brompton or Bakfiets?), but it is up to the retailer what to stock in their shop and what atmosphere to create. From the potential customer's perspective, there is a big difference between being able to order something, and being able to try all of these bicycles and compare them to one another directly. In Boston, I know that in theory I could go to Harris Cyclery and to the Wheelworks and to Cambridge Bicycles and special-order almost any of the bicycles I saw at the Portland Velocipede. But I can never have the same customer experience; those shops are completely different (not worse, just different). The Portland V is unique in its focus on transportation cycling and in its variety of available floor models. Shops like theirs, and Clever Cycles in "the other Portland," take a risk by making a commitment to this niche, and the customer reaps the benefits of the resources they have to offer.

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  23. next time you go take me with you!!!!!!!

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  24. Wonderful shop! Wish Liverpool had a bike shops like that - it's all sport focussed stuff here.

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  25. Gillian and Josh are great, and so is their shop. I look forward to your post about cycling around Portland. Did you take your bike up on the Downeaster? You can, you know!

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  26. This store looks amazing! You'd be hard pressed to find something like this in my part of the Midwest. Anytime I want something a little nicer and not 'sporty' (like even my Nutcase helmet) I have to order it online and just hope it looks as good in person as in image. I would love a bike shop catering to transportation cycling.

    S.

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  27. this is a glorious post and that store sounds like a dream. I know where I plan to go next spring on our overnight getaway. We'll skip portsmouth and go straight to portland. ( were you able to ride these wonderful bikes b/c of your blog? Or could anyone give a lengthy test ride/ rent?)

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  28. Philippe - I now have it confirmed that Bella Ciao frames are not made by Taurus.

    Vee - I am pretty sure anybody can test ride the bikes. (And BTW, the smaller size Abici would definitely fit you!) It takes less than 2 hours to get to Portland from Boston, so definitely worth a visit. There is even a train from North Station, though it does not leave early enough for a day-trip.

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  29. Ohhhh, Portland, I grew up there! And this shop was not in existence last time I visited my mom. I hope you had a wonderful time riding around town - I was surprised during recent visits about the number of bicycles on the roads. The whole downtown peninsula is lovely, and then you can use Back Cove and Deering Park to sneak out to the rest of the city, plus I think there is a new path along the Fore River, leading to the Amtrak station? Well, anyway, I'll certainly be checking the Velocipede out next time I visit!

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