Riding the Pilen: a Multitude of Impressions
Since the Pilen give-away contest is happening before a final review will be published, I wanted to write up a separate post about its ride quality. It's funny that even though I should know better, I am still fooled into thinking that I "know" a bike based on the way it looks, and this was the case here. "A swan frame," I thought, "this will be just like my Austrian bike." But the Pilen is a completely different bicycle. Moreover, my impression of its ride quality differs from others' impressions, which apparently may be a factor of my size. But let me start from the beginning.
What I like best about the Pilen is its remarkable stability. Traditional Dutch bikes tend to have a light front end, which can make the steering feel difficult to control for those who are not used to it. Though I love the ride quality of Dutch bikes, I too remember being taken aback by the light steering when I first tried them. In comparison, the Pilen is extremely well balanced. It is a very easy bike to control and it handles predictably. I keep switching between the Pilen and my vintage Gazelle, and the Gazelle always feels shaky after the Pilen.
The wide, cushy Schwalbe Big Apple tires offer another advantage. Potholes or road shock of any kind are a non-issue; the bike just rolls over uneven terrain and I don't feel a thing.
I shared these impressions with Todd of Clever Cycles - who is one of the North American retailers stocking these bikes and therefore has experience with them. Todd suggested it was possible that the bike is "overbuilt" for me - meaning that the tubing and the wheels are specced with a rider larger and heavier than me in mind. Though I have heard the "overbuilt" theory before (mainly when it comes to Surly bikes - which also seem to be best enjoyed by heavier riders), to be honest I found the idea improbable. I thought it was more likely that I needed to keep playing with the saddle and handlebar positions, or change the rear cog after all.
Then something happened to suggest that Todd may be on to something: A woman who is taller and heavier than me was over for a visit, and she wanted to try the Pilen. She did, and she absolutely loved it. She called it zippy and fast. She asked me what I thought of the bike, and I told her my honest impressions, but her impressions were totally different. She is not a stronger cyclist than I am. But the Pilens's size seemed just right for her and she looked a lot more natural on the bike than I do. She has tried a lot of other bikes at this point, including several Dutch bikes and the Rivendell Betty Foy, so she does have a solid basis for comparison. She preferred the Pilen's ride quality to all of these.
Biking in Heels. She and I are roughly the same height and weight. She loved the looks of the bike (as do I), but found the ride quality odd. Without my having said anything in advance, she had similar things to say about the gearing feeling too closely spaced as I have expressed above. She also found the "cockpit" configuration to feel unnatural compared to her own upright bikes (a Raleigh Sports and several DL-1s).
At this point, I am not sure what to conclude, or whether it is even appropriate to make any conclusions. I've tried to describe things as they are. It seems likely that the bike is indeed built with taller and heavier riders in mind, and that it handles differently for those riders. I cannot say via direct experience, as I can't magically enlarge myself and try it both ways. The two heavier persons who have test-ridden the Pilen in my presence were enthusiastic with their feedback, and witnessing this makes it clear that sometimes it is a matter of matching up the right bike with the right owner. Your thoughts on this are welcome. Have you felt that some bikes were overbuilt or underbuilt for your body type?