Friday, August 5, 2011

Pilen Lyx: the Pragmatic Romantic

Blue Pilen, Yellow Roses
Earlier this summer, I had a Pilen Lyx lady's bicycle in my possession for over a month, on loan from the US distributor BoxCycles. During this time I got to know the bicycle fairly well, and it is one of the more unusual classic bikes I have ridden so far - with a combination of qualities that makes it difficult to categorise. A city bike and an off-road bike in one, the Pilen is attractive, durable, amazingly stable, and is capable of hauling a great deal of weight.

Pilen Lyx
When the blue Pilen was delivered to me, I was taken aback by its striking looks. I knew that this bicycle was designed to be practical, not pretty. A Scandinavian friend described its reputation as that of a "tank" - resistant to rust, tolerant of neglect and abuse, and indifferent to getting dropped on the ground or crashed at slow speeds - all around "solid." In a region that is no stranger to heavy-duty bikes, that is quite a statement and it led me to expect a purely no-nonesense machine. But in person the Pilen has a romantic quality to it that transcends the practical aspects.

Pilen, Charles River Trail
It is not a quaint bicycle. But it is graceful and evocative. My imagination immediately went into overdrive with daydreams of seaside forest trails and lush meadows under stormy skies - the Pilen gliding through them with a stack of firewood strapped to its rear rack. While in a way such flights of fancy are absurd, I think that a bicycle's ability to inspire is tremendously important, and the Pilen inspires.

Pilen, Charles River Trail
Aside from the looks in a general sense, I was impressed with the frame construction. I knew that the frame was TIG-welded (not lugged) steel, so I was not expecting to swoon over it. But as far as welded frames go, this is swoon-worthy. The frame joints are beautiful, with the welding marks nearly invisible - visually on par with custom frames.

Pilen Lyx, Seat Cluster
The curved seat stays are capped and meet the seat tube in the most elegant manner. No shortcuts, no ugly blobs here. The top of the seat tube has a "collar" that completes the quality feel.

Pilen Lyx, Fork Crown
The crisp, lugged fork crown balances out the details at the rear. It is really very nicely done and I prefer a frame like this by far to frames where the main tubes are half-heartedly lugged, with a welded rear triangle or a unicrown fork slapped on.

My one criticism of the frame construction, is that while there are details such as a braze-on for the front wheel stabiliser spring, there are no braze-ons for the shifter cable and it is attached along the down tube with black clips. Why not add a couple of braze-ons here?

Long Term Pilen Test Ride... Then Give-Away!
The Pilen headbadge: "cycles from Malilla." The word pilen means "arrow" in Swedish. The bicycles are designed and assembled in-house, with the frames built in Taiwan to their specifications.

Pilen Lyx, Brooks B66S
Pilen bicycles come equipped with Brooks B66 saddles (B66S for the lady's frame) in a selection of colours. Frame colour can also be selected - the other options being black, dark green and dark red.

Pilen Lyx, Bell
Rubber grips and a Pilen-branded bell. You have to spin the bell to ring it, which can work nicely for those whole finger hurts from trigger-style bells.

Pilen, Charles River Trail
The version of the Lyx I had was equipped with a 3-speed Shimano coaster brake hub with a twist shifter. Other possibilities are available, including hand-operated brakes and 8-speed hubs. The bicycle comes with a dynamo hub-powered headlight, which can be attached either below the stem or on the side, via a braze-on on the fork - depending on whether you plan to attach a basket. When the headlight it attached below the stem, the wire is contained within a long spring that attaches to a braze-on on the fork. I have never seen this method before and spent a lot of time examining the spring.

Pilen Rear Rack, Handpainted
The tail light is battery powered - as is increasingly the trend with many European bicycles that previously used dynamo-powered lighting front and rear. I think the trend is an unfortunate one, and wish the Pilen had a dynamo-powered tail light.

Tire and Rock
The tires are 700C x 48mm Schwalbe Big Apples, black with reflective sidewalls.

Long Term Pilen Test Ride... Then Give-Away!
One feature that gives the Pilen its distinct look is the custom rear rack. It is beautifully made, with hand-painted insignia, and is unusually large.

Pilen, Pizza
For reference, this is a large pizza box (17"x17").

Pilen, Pizza
Jammed under the saddle and held in place with a rat-trap spring. Yup, that's all it takes to transport a pizza on this bike.

Po Campo Pannier Attachment
This is the only rack I've seen with not one but two rat-trap springs, and they came in handy when devising creative ways to carry shopping bags. I have also attached stacks of large, heavy boxes to the rack with bungee cords, and it hardly flinched. The platform is so wide, that the packages stay very stable. The one downside of a rack like this, however, is that the tubing is too thick for pannier systems that attach via hooks. Ortlieb, R&K, Fastrider and Basil hooks will not fit around it. Only a system such as the one Po Campo uses (shown above and reviewed here) will work with the Pilen rack.

An optional front rack is also available with the Pilen (shown and reviewed here), but I opted not to install it. This front rack felt excessively heavy, and at 47lb the bicycle was already borderline too much for me to handle without it. I was also told that installing the front rack scratches up the head tube and headbadge, so all in all it did not seem appealing. For all of my needs (workbag, grocery shopping, and the occasional transport of boxes and bulky packages) the huge rear rack was sufficient.

Long Term Pilen Test Ride... Then Give-Away!
While in possession of the Pilen, I went back and forth between riding it and my mid-'90s Gazelle, marveling at the differences between them despite their superficial similarities. While my Gazelle is a prototypically hardy Dutch bike, it seemed almost flimsy in comparison to the Pilen's visibly thicker tubing, wider tires, and overall "heavier set" looks. The Gazelle's rear rack looked downright scrawny next to the Pilen's mighty platform, and the Gazelle's handling at slow speeds was like that of a drunker sailor compared to the Pilen's unwavering stability. On the other hand, the Pilen was slower to accelerate and more effortful to push for me than my old Gazelle - an experience that seems to be a factor of my size and weight, as described here.

Pilen, Neighbourhood
Compared to traditional Dutch bikes or English Roadsters, the Swedish Pilen's geometry is not quite as relaxed, and its handlebars are considerably less swept back - positioning the cyclist's hands almost straight in front of them, mountain bike-style. This makes the handling both more controlled and livelier, with the cyclist's weight more evenly distributed between the front and rear of the bike. While I like the lower positioning of the handlebars, I would prefer it if they had more sweep to them - but this is a matter of personal preference.

Magic Cycling Dress Prototype
The thing that impressed me the most about the Pilen's ride quality, is its stability. When starting and stopping, it feels extremely sturdy and safe. I wrote earlier about all the different things people mean when they describe a bicycle as "stable," and the Pilen is pretty much all of them. It does not want to go down, no matter what - a factor that can be especially important to novices who are worried about faltering at intersections in traffic.

Pilen Bicycle, Castle Island
I also soon discovered that the Pilen handled excellently on a variety of off-road surfaces: grass, dirt, gravel paths, even narrow trails with roots and rocks. This is a very fun and safe bicycle to ride off pavement.

Pilen Bicycle, Castle Island
All in all, I have probably ridden about 100 miles on the Pilen - most of it in the form of short (< 5 mile) trips. The longest I have ridden it in the course of a single ride is 20 miles. Initially I was reluctant to take a longer trip on this bike, because of how relatively effortful it felt to accelerate. But in the course of the longer ride it "blossomed" and we developed a flow that made it faster and easier than I expected. The bike also did surprisingly well on hills, particularly if given a chance to pick up speed beforehand.

Pilen, Charles River Trail
The more experience I gained with the Pilen over time, the less certain I became about how to define or explain it. A classic "swan" frame reminiscent of vintage bicycles, it really handles more like a contemporary mountain bike with upright positioning. The on/off road handling can be especially useful for those who regularly travel through pothole-ridden neighbourhoods, or for those who have access to off road trails for commuting. For those who enjoy touring on an upright bike, the Pilen could be a good candidate as well.

Pilen Lyx, Sunset
The one size only 56cm lady's frame is best suited for taller women, which is good news for those who have been unable to find step-through frames in larger sizes. The heavy-duty tubing and wheels are designed for carrying serious weight, which is great for heavier riders and for those regularly traveling with the bike fully loaded. No bicycle is for everyone, but I think the Pilen fills a niche that needed filling: It is a hard-core, elegant transport bike whose mountain bike-ish handling should be inherently familiar to a North American cyclist. Though I would have liked to see a full chaincase, dressguards and a dynamo-powered tail light on the Pilen, it is otherwise fully equipped for daily transportation. Having housed it outdoors for the duration of my guardianship, I can attest to the bike's resistance to the elements and its general durability: There is not a scratch on the powdercoat and the components are free of rust. 

Last month I hosted a contest to give away the Pilen to one of my readers, and the winner should be receiving the bicycle shortly. I wonder what she will think of it, and how her impressions will compare to my pragmatic and romantic musings. Many thanks once again to Will of BoxCycles for the opportunity to get to know this bicycle, and for so generously donating it to be given away. 

41 comments:

  1. I'm honestly sad that I'm as short as I am, because I think I love the Pilen. Dutch bikes just don't have a huge appeal to me, but there's just something about the Pilen. It's homely while being lovely at the same time, while still being no nonsense. I love that it can easily haul a huge pizza box. It also looks like it would haul me and cargo without complaint. I'm on the chunkier side and sometimes 'women's' bikes worry me in that respect, especially hauling cargo too.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks so much for taking the time to do this review -- much appreciated!
    Just a note for anyone that might be interested in seeing the bikes...
    At the moment there are a handful of dealers across the country that ordered & received bikes from our recent, first shipment (thanks!) -- they include:

    - Clever Cycles in Portland, OR
    - A Street Bike Named Desire in Palo Alto, CA
    - Hudson Urban Bikes in NYC
    - Mindful Bike in Denver, CO
    - Flying Pigeon in Los Angeles, CA
    - Alternabike in San Diego, CA
    - JC Lind Bike Co. in Chicago, IL

    I can't say for certain that they still have any in stock, but as of recently, they did.
    Outside of these dealers, we have a deeper retail network that you can see here: http://bit.ly/n0bglC -- these dealers will also have the ability to order bikes when the next shipment arrives in two months.

    Thanks,
    Will

    ReplyDelete
  3. I just wanted to let people know that I've managed to use my New Look pannier bag with hooks on my Pilen rack without any problems. Not sure if there are any US distributers but they can be found in the UK.

    http://www.newlooxs.nl/main.php?setlanguage=en

    ReplyDelete
  4. Though I haven't seen a Pilen in person the Swedish Kronan I saw had a presence like you describe.

    Tail light - this is kind of ironic after yesterday's dynamo pulsing post. Anyway I'm sure it had to do with mfg complications, costs, clean lines and potential durability issues of a long run of wire. Going possibly through the frame, out the bottom, along the inside of the fender I'm feel sure Pilen folks just went: eff it - let's just do a battery.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I think that a blog's ability to inspire is tremendously important, and that Lovely Bicycle inspires, perhaps overmuch. After reading the first few paragraphs of today's entry, I loaded Mozart's piano concerto 21D onto my iPod, packed a picnic basket, bungeed it onto the rack of my Pilen wannabe, cycled out to a nearby lovely forested path, and rode to its terminus at the edge of a seaside cliff. Seated under a fragrant pine, I lunched on locally procured strawberries and cream. Afterwards, I dispatched myself. My only regret is that I did not finish the Pilen hagiography.

    ReplyDelete
  6. @Ground Round Jim: But the choice of a battery is so incongruous. The bike is made and almost exclusively sold in Sweden where it's dark six months of the year. What is complicated with running a wire along or inside the top tube and along the rear carrier? This is a small company for which their entire production is almost "custom". A few minutes extra cannot make that much difference.

    O, and AB = Inc. or Ltd. (Aktiebolag).

    ReplyDelete
  7. Frits - what do I know of the thought process of Pilenians? Or strawberries w/cream? Wait, I know a lot about that but surely I wouldn't dispatch myself after a bowl.

    Anyway wires jiggle and can break, drilling holes for hidden wires is just another entry point for water. It's Swedish, remember.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Thanks Will, wasn't sure which shops carry them already.

    Anon 12:43 - Good to know! I've seen these panniers, but not sure whether in the US.

    ReplyDelete
  9. GR Jim - Well, this is a very different type of bicycle we are talking about here. Not only will most owners not ride it at 25mph in the dark, but on an upright bike it does not matter so much, because there is less weight on the hands. I should mention that in the other post.

    Anyhow, I prefer dynamo powered lighting by far, especially for city bikes. If given a choice, I'd ask for a brazed on bottle instead of a hub, but that's just me.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Yes, your preference for dynamos is well-known despite their problems, some of which you've mentioned.

    My comment is to point out there were real manufacturing decisions that needed to have been made in order to bring this bike in at a certain price point.

    ReplyDelete
  11. It does all boil down to price point. Personally I would rather have no stabiliser braze-on, no housing-for-the-light braze-on and buy my own leather saddle, but yes braze-ons for the shifter cable and yes tail light. It is not difficult to route the tail light, so I am actually not sure what the problem is and why some manufacturers (Pashley, some newer Gazelle models) are no longer doing it.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Tail light - the things I've mentioned have a lot to do with it I'm sure, but this is a Will question.

    The stabilizer braze-on I can see as it goes to its no-nonsense, yet clean-looking, nature. To mount one without a braze-on requires a big ugly clamp that runs around the dt.

    The routing of cabling through the plastic clip is weird but it's got some nordic charm.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Really? See, to me the clipped-on cable stands out precisely because the rest of it is so clean and there is a special brazeon for every tiny thing; it's a contrast that makes the clips seem like an omission - almost as if the bike was originally meant to be a single speed.

    ReplyDelete
  14. We are saying the same thing - it's weird. I don't quite like it...but I don't hate it.

    I like weird, just could be a better weird. Like a cast Norse god or goddess as a stop. Like the old Ibis hand job.

    ReplyDelete
  15. It seems to me that the price point argument just doesn't hold for a bike that retails north of $1500. Maybe cable ties are more durable than brazeons. Yeah, right.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Velouria, you and your site are so bad for my committment to the simple spareness of just enough. Every time I come here I find something else to covet. And kicking myself I didn't enter your contest. How does the price of the Pilen compare to others?

    EmmaJ

    ReplyDelete
  17. MelissatheRagamuffinAugust 5, 2011 at 5:05 PM

    So, how much do these bikes run? I do think I'd be concerned about the weight of the bike. Where I live is very hilly. every bit of weight in the bike matters when you're peddling up a huge hill hauling 40 lbs in groceries. In this scorching heat I really appreciate how light Miss Surly is (compared to my mountain bike). Peddling my mountain bike in this heat just makes the heat that much more unpleasant.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Man, now I want a Pilen.
    The amount of bike lust this blog inspires in me is ridiculous.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Melissa - I'm actually not sure of the exact price, since there are so many different possibilities. Clevercycles has prices of the 8-speed "Portlandia" version posted here, but the one I tried should cost less.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Oh -

    " the Swedish Kronan I saw had a presence like you describe"

    I've seen a few of these. Don't know how old, but didn't look too old. Frame construction and components not as nice as the Pilen. There is also Skeppshult, but I've never seen one in person. I think the quality hierarchy is supposed to be Pilen>Skeppshult>Kronan

    ReplyDelete
  21. I don't know if you mentioned this - I like the width of the rack; it's wide enough to balance things that are tough to center. The Kronan was similar.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Some thoughts on the tail-light scandal: To be honest, it would be expensive to do internal routing for the wire to the tail, but i think i'd be happy with just some zipties keeping the wire to the frame. B/c this thing already has a dynamo and a dynamo-powered headlight, I think that the price difference would be very slight between a battery-powered tail and a dynamo tail with zip-ties, but I'm willing to bet that many customers prefer the cleaner look of the battery-powered tail. Couple that preference with the fact that LED tail-lights go forever on one battery, and I can see how the Pilen ppl made the decision to use the battery-powered one. (My only concern with this is that Peter White suggests that most dynamo headlamps work better/last longer when used in conjunction with a dynamo tail-light.)

    Me, I'd prefer a dynamo tail-light, too. Which is why, if this were my bike, I'd just buy a 4D Lite Plus for $30 and zip/tape the wire to the frame.

    Biggest ? for this bike is, how do they justify the $1500 price tag for what is essentially a maxway frame with cruiser components? The whole "Swedish design" thing seems to be a selling point, but the actual frame is every bit as Swedish as what one can find on bikesdirect.com. I like the bike just fine, and I ride/appreciate some Taiwanese frames myself, but the price is a bit too dear for what the bike actually is, imo.

    -rob

    ReplyDelete
  23. Rob, I think import duties and shipping costs plus a decent EU wage to pay for heavy Swedish taxation = Pilen cost, Elvira's peremptory comment notwithstanding.

    Plus small, family-run operation.

    If we were to compare prices of Workcycles models Amsterdam to US there is a huge markup.

    I like this bike but it's a bit heavy.

    ReplyDelete
  24. I can deal with the weight, provided that I could always keep it parked outside. If my Gazelle should ever croak and I need something as heavy duty or more, the Pilen may be it - its being too big for me notwithstanding.

    Rob - It's actually not that difficult to do internal lighting through the DT, but not necessary for me. If they had braze-ons along the bottom of the DT, those could hold both the shifter cable and the wiring for the tail light.

    ReplyDelete
  25. MelissatheRagamuffinAugust 6, 2011 at 8:44 AM

    If I was going to pay that much for another bike I would probably either buy another Surly or come up a little and get a Rivendell. Though part of my justification for what I spent on Miss Surly was that she would last the rest of my riding life and beyond.

    ReplyDelete
  26. What is so appealing about this bike is it's so "ordinary" that it's "special" very much like a favored pair of worn in shoes that are always comfortable.

    ReplyDelete
  27. screech said: "The whole "Swedish design" thing seems to be a selling point, but the actual frame is every bit as Swedish as what one can find on bikesdirect.com."

    This totally is an old scandinavian design used by almost all the Swedish and Norwegian manufacturers (from as far back as when there was many small manufacturers around) and not just a "selling point". Visiting the Danish technical museum this summer left me with the impression that tha Danish went a bit more "dutch" with their loopframes.
    badmother

    ReplyDelete
  28. I was pleased to ride a Lyx thanks to the friendly staff at Mindful Bike in Denver. In the showroom, it was parked next to a Pashley, and the Lyx had a visibly longer wheelbase, perhaps a couple of inches longer, and looked "bigger".
    I noted the superficial resemblance to the Kronan also, but the Kronan did not have a chrome-moly frame, did not offer 8 speeds, and the men's model only came with 650C rims.
    Riding the Lyx, I also noted the stability and cushy ride. I liked the bend and height of the handlebars, which allowed an upright riding position with a forward reach allowing more efficient breathing and better control than traditional bars which sweep back around the riders knees.
    I also liked the built-in front wheel dynamo. The advantage to the battery light is that it continues to burn when the bike stops. However, it is a simple matter to run a wire to the taillight, remove the batteries, and run the light that way.
    I don't mind that the frame is welded in Taiwan, as a good frame can be made in many places. On their website, Pilen askes "Is Sven a better man than Chen?" What is important is the materials and workmanship, NOT the country where it is welded.
    Like almost every other bicycle, the other components for the Lyx come from various other countries. These parts are assembled, by hand, in Sweden.
    The only reservation I can think of was the coaster brake on the rear wheel, I would have preferred the optional hand-operated roller brake. The example I rode was finished in a handsome dark green, which I liked very much, but would have preferred the dark blue even more.
    I didn't think the price was out of line at all for a bike built to this specification.

    ReplyDelete
  29. "The whole "Swedish design" thing seems to be a selling point, but the actual frame is every bit as Swedish as what one can find on bikesdirect..."

    No, I don't think that's the case at all. Taiwan is a location, not a method of production. Crappy, mass-produced frames can come from there, and so can exquisite, painstakingly hand-made frames. The quality depends on the facility and method of production.

    The Pilen design is classically very much Swedish, tweaked by Pilen in-house. The frames are hand-made in Taiwan, and in my opinion they are made exceptionally well. I have not seen such clean welds on a non-custom frame, period, so I really have to give them credit. Personally, I would prefer it if there were still good Swedish framebuilders around who could manufacture these frames using the same methods. But according to Pilen there aren't, and they claim that Taiwanese manufacturers are, at this point, better equipped to make these bikes - an interesting, albeit disappointing, development in itself.

    ReplyDelete
  30. Among Swedish manufacturers, Skeppshult is the only one producing frames in-house. Here's a couple of pictures from the factory. http://www.skeppshult.se/sv/vi (click "Häng med på fabriksvisning")

    ReplyDelete
  31. That one looks really beautiful, has a stroing feel and I liked the color. It's a good one. Really inspired.

    ReplyDelete
  32. HI, thanks for the review. I am an american who has just moved to Sweden. I am trying to decide between the Pilen and the Skeppshult (Natur model). Both are somewhat less expensive here, BTW. It will come down to the ride, but I like that the skeppshult comes in a 61cm size and I do have to say that I like they're still manufacturing their own bikes from start to finish. Velouria said she thought the quality pecking order was Pilen-SKeppsult-Kronen. My sense is that Kronen is a distant 3rd, and not really 3rd at all as there are other brands here--crescent, monark--that are perhaps equal or better. Anyway, I can't find a site in sweden that actually makes comparisons between the pilen and the skeppshult and I'm hoping Nils or others may be able to comment...Thanks

    ReplyDelete
  33. Hi Lovely Bikes,

    I like this Pilen bike and I would like. I'm 1,85m height and 85kg weight. This bike have different size?

    Anohter question is where I can buy it. I'm from Barcelona and here there isn't shops with this brand of bikes. Do you know a european online shop for ask the price?

    Thanks,

    Miquel

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Miquel, size is unique, Pilen doesn't build other sizes, in order to save money i suppose, but i'm 1.83 and fit very well on it, even largely. If you cannot find a fealer in Spain, just write to Pilen, they wll answer you. Hola, Stelio

      Delete
  34. I have a Pilen, among other 4 bikes (brompton, casati race, gazelle, cannondale mtb). First thing: the rear rack tubes are thick, but I can fit Ortlieb bags well, the hooks just grab the whole tube nicely. Than: having pedaled about 3000miles on it, in my daily commuting of 20miles in Milano (italy), I admire its solid drive, resilient and confortable rims and tyres (big baloon), passing on all holes and hard terrible surface of Milano streets, upright and high seating positon, to see well an to be saw by crazy car drivers. Quite another world compared with my Brompton, which is quicker, but last week i just falled down, putting the small and tiny front wheel in a hole, sadly breaking my arm; if I would have driven my Pilen, it wouldn't have happened anything. This summer i plan to cross the alps in a two weeks trip. Finally I swapped the brooks saddle with a dd wings, which is more confortable and better for men (and women) delicate parts.

    ReplyDelete
  35. I love the Pilen. I want to cross the Alps in winter on a light blue one like this with a cherry pie on the rack.

    ReplyDelete
  36. Here is a tip for you all!

    I just wen't on a ride in sunny Sweden on the brand new Pilen Sport model. wow!, i tried the 2 speed automatix version an was very impressed. Just to tone things down i tried 3 different hybrids: Nishiki Intro 7, one Trek, and one Scott. the result? still loved Pilen Sport! it has an oldtime charm with some pretty great handling.

    /Jerry in Sweden

    visit www.pilencykel.com for more info!

    ReplyDelete
  37. Just purchased a Sport here in northern California-cannot wait for it to arrive!

    ed

    ReplyDelete
  38. Seeing the comments about how this bike is made for "taller women", we are curious as to how tall are you (since you mention you barely fit). In other words, about how tall do you need to be for this bike?

    ReplyDelete
  39. Augsburg, I'm hoping she responds but I just rode test drove the Lyx this week after a year of searching for a mixte/step through that is large enough for my 5'11" long-legged body and it was a great fit. I'm close to buying it but am getting a little greedy/picky seeing all the step throughs now on the market. I just keep coming back to this bike which feels, rides and looks great.

    ReplyDelete