City Bikes with Mountain Bike Heritage

Paper Bicycle, Lexington MA
A distinct category of transportation bicycles that has emerged in parallel to the contemporary classic Dutch bikes and English roadsters, is the city bike with mountain bike heritage. I have tried four distinct bicycles from this genre so far: the Retrovelo, the Urbana, the Pilen, and the Paper Bicycle.

Exhausted Paula in Greifenstein
The lugged Retrovelo is the most deceptively traditional looking of the bunch. But behind the facade of an elegant European city bicycle, it is essentially a remake of an early mountain bike design - made speedier with the fast rolling Schwalbe Fat Frank tires (originally made for Retrovelo and named after its designer Frank Patitz). When I rode a Retrovelo for the first time, I noticed that its handling felt different from that of Dutch city bikes and English roadsters, but could not articulate how or why. Having now tried other bicycles with MTB roots, it makes more sense.

Pilen Lyx
The swan-framed Pilen surprised me with an even more dramatic difference in handling from traditional European city bikes. Its "unfellability" reminded me of one of those roly-poly toys that stay upright no matter how far you try to push them to the side. It was on the Pilen that I overcame my dislike of cycling on grassy hills and rock-strewn trails. And with its Schwalbe Big Apples in 700C, it towered over other bikes in city traffic while also breezily rolling over rough terrain.

Urbana Bike, Olive
Pushing the limits of my aesthetic open-mindedness, the Urbana is basically a downhill mountain bike redesigned with a low step-over U-frame, fitted with BMX handlebars, and equipped with all the contraptions necessary for transportational cycling - including a rear rack that, together with the frame design, allows the bike to carry an insane amount of weight without impacting handling. Unabashedly industrial looking, the Urbana does not aim at classic prettiness. But it sure rides well - rolling over substantial road debris and hopping curbs on its 2.6" wide tires with monster-truck ease and city bike grace.

Paper Bicycle, Railroad
And then there is the Paper Bicycle. With its seemingly bizarre construction, this bike manages to combine an upright sitting position with the type of "bad ass" mountain-bikey handling that inspired me to actually try riding it down a steep rocky hill (successfully). On top of that, it is responsive enough to ride long distance, as a single speed.

Knowing fairly little about mountain bike design (other than that they have a "low center of gravity" - which means what, exactly, as far as frame construction goes?..), I am not in a position to offer a technical analysis of these bicycles. But as a cyclist who has tried a myriad of city bikes at this point, I can feel a common thread in their handling. Granted, "stability" is a vague term. But theirs is a distinct brand of stability that I for one find useful in a city bike. The same qualities that make these bicycles stable off-road, are what makes them unexpectedly reassuring in traffic, indifferent to crater-sized potholes, and immune to unexpected road debris. There is more to it, but alas, I lack the vocabulary to describe it.

While mountain bikes have been used for transportation for decades, their sluggish tires, bouncy suspension forks, derailleur gearing and lack of fenders made them sub-optimal for this purpose. Also, allow me to be honest: Contemporary mountain bikes are rather ugly. But harvesting their best characteristics while optimising them for urban transport and aiming for a more classic look, seems like an excellent recipe for a fun, reliable and versatile city bike.


  1. 'Knowing fairly little about mountain bike design (other than that they have a "low center of gravity"'

    I'm not sure what that means exactly; but mountain bikes have always had a particularly high bottom bracket for clearing logs and ruts. If I were asked to describe a mtb center of gravity, I would call it high. My center of gravity is much higher in my mtb than on any of my other bikes.

  2. Here, here! I knew there was something about my women's style Ross Mount Saint Helens that I gravitate to. I believe it's the characteristics that you describe. This is an older, approx. 1986, mountain bike. I use it for city commuting. It has the versatility to ride sidewalks and easy dirt trails with my children. I like your laywoman's perspective of these type of bikes. I'm happy to see they are coming of age with those beautiful designs, especially the Pilen and Urbana.

    My Ross:

  3. I think this dutch vrs mountain bike handling gestalt is an interesting insight.

    Both work pretty well for urban/transportation cycling, but in being completely familiar with one, the other may be an acquired taste at best.

  4. Unfellability* do you mean guys can't ride these?

    We had a "discussion" once in which I stated many of the aforementioned are just mtbs in sheeps' clothing.

    The lineage isn't that clear: mtbs derived from cruisers which derived from Euro city bikes which...
    It's all the same except for slight modifications.

    Except, modern mtbs way more varied in their geo than any road-going bike. The Urbana, while designed by a downhill guy, isn't even close to a downhill bike.

    While I agree mtbs are sub-optimal for people who don't like maintenance, wear nice clothes, are time-crunched, I rode a dualie for years as a city bike.

    It allowed me to make my own path rather than to rely on infrastructure.

    So anyway, we also had a conversation about low Center of Gravity. Basically, in terms of frame construction, just throw the mass down towards the bb. Trad women's Euro bikes do this, modern mtbs do this.

    Better tossability when the CoG is by your feet.

  5. Downhill mtb:

  6. We're going to get you on a Big Dummy sooner or later. Same effect, only more so, I think.

  7. Putting the Pilen into the same basket with the other three bikes puts things into a different perspective for me. I had never considered a MTB ancestry for it.

    To me, the Pilen is a modern re-make of a classic design that was more or less dominant in Norway, Sweden and Finland from at least the 20's up to the 80's. The same "tank" weight and durability, the more or less relaxed geometry and long wheel base. I have a Swedish Crescent "womens" bike (lacking wheels right now) made in 1943 that is a dead ringer for the Pilen. My wife's grandmother's bike (from the 20's) is a another one.

    Roads up here, especially in the country side, were atrocious, muddy and rocky, back then. The "MTB" aspects to the design I think were more of a rather rational reaction to conditions. One detail not included in modern versions of these machines is a little folding handle down low on the seat tube so if the going gets too bad, you can carry the bike by it. Very convenient: the handle is just about at the center of gravity of the bike.

    (The Swedish company Kronen makes a modern version of the old M42 Swedish Army bike. I am currently restoring one made in 1942. This TANK weighs in at 26 kg (56 lbs) and is rated to carry a whopping ** 250 kg** (400 lbs), including the rider. The remake comes in at about half of both those figures.)

    There are a lot of old bikes of this type (the Pilen-Crescent) on the roads here (Finland), some of them over 50 years old. They are considered pretty much unisex, and even young athletic-looking men ride these "women's" bikes, conplete with skirt guards in a lot of cases. A new Pilen would fit right in up here.


  8. Hmm ...
    Influences come and go in a complicated pattern.
    Being a Swede I can only comment on Pilen (meaning The Arrow, -en being "the"). Pilen is not of a city bike tradition like developed in western Europe with more urban environment and better roads. Pilen is of a tradition developed in the mostly rural countries of Norway-Sweden-Finland in the years between the world wars and being the most common bike up until the 1970s. At least and still common. It was used in mixed terrain on gravel roads, trails - often long stretches - and "grassy hills". It was often used for carrying considerable loads.
    Didn´t the earlu mountain bikers take older utility bikes and adapt them for their more "sporty" ends?
    As I see it we might have at least three different traditions from different mental and practical environments mixing and adapting in interesting ways.

  9. I have ridden my wife's former MTB, an ugly duckling 1988 Schwinn Sierra, as a commuter for 3+ years. It rolls quite well with Ritchey Tom Slick tires. I have begun working on an early 80s Stumpjumper that will have dynamo lights, nice Velo-Orange fenders and Northroad bars. Its lugged frame, slack angles, biplane fork crown and long chainstays make for a nice, comfortable ride.
    Check out J. Livingston bikes at They repurpose old mountain bikes as affordable, stylish commuters.
    MT cyclist

  10. I have thought for some time that pre-suspension mountain bikes make the most accessible city bikes. With a quick swap of the bars and stem they can have an upright riding position. They mostly have 26" wheels, which I find preferable for stop-and-go city riding, and they have clearance for huge slick tires. Add fenders and a rack and you have a perfect transportation bike. I would swap out the 80s cantilever brakes for a set of new V-brakes as well.

    Any old Specialized MTB, for example, with a rigid fork works great for this purpose. I see them all around the Bay Area.

  11. What about the Breezer as another city bike with mountain bike heritage? I recall that you recently reviewed one (but didn't much care for it).

  12. Your "lack of vocabulary" wasn't as lacking as you think,at least not to a mtn biker,I got exactly what you were saying,and it put a smile on my face :)

    One tid-bit I disagreed with...the Urbana is nowhere near a downhill mtn bike redesigned,at least not one made within the last decade,LOL,those beats resemble more the motocrossers I raced 15-20 years ago than any non-downhill bicycle I've seen being built today.

    I tend to gravitate more towards the mtn bike side of the spectrum myself (my city bike is a non-racey cyclocrosser,for eg) without actually realising it-unless I stop and on-purposely think about it-which like you say,could most likely be it's what I'm used to (did you say that,or imply? I'm assuming...),though I really like the looks of many of the more city oriented bikes I see here often,you've opened my eyes to mch more than just smooth tread-tires (long time reader,recent commenter :) ). I always enjoy your posts,this one was great!

    Disabled Cyclist

  13. Ground Round Jim said...
    "We had a "discussion" once in which I stated many of the aforementioned are just mtbs in sheeps' clothing."

    Yup. I probed into it more since then, tried a Retrovelo again last month when I was in Vienna, discussed it with the Urbana and Paper bike designers, and you were pretty much spot on.

    "about low Center of Gravity. Basically, in terms of frame construction, just throw the mass down towards the bb"

    Right, but what does that mean? How do you "throw the mass down," I mean.

  14. Oh my, you hurt GF's feelings. He aspires to be a lovely bicycle:)

    All kidding aside, I like your reviews on city bikes which have some mountain bike geometry. The best of both worlds I say.

    In regard to understanding mountain bike design, my mountain bike has what they call G2 Geometry. I think you have touched upon fork offset and trail on past posts. Mountain bikes are no different and require good geometry for a safe comfortable ride. Here is link which touches upon head tube slack, which I'm not sure whether the bikes you reviewed have, and also fork offset.

  15. I am little suspect of city bikes based on MTB designs. For the last few years I've been riding a Kona Smoke 2-9 (, a MTB turned urban if I've ever seen one. It has a much a higher bottom bracket than any of my other bikes, which I dislike. For non-step through frames a high BB makes mounting more difficult. In a city bike, where we are not clearing logs on the trail, I'd prefer more BB drop. Admittedly, this bike is best categorized as a hybrid, but the line between hybrid and city is a fine distinction. With my recently installed North Road bars, did I cross the line to city bike?

    An article from Dave Moulton on BB height and stability, among other things:

  16. Leo said...
    One detail not included in modern versions of these machines is a little folding handle down low on the seat tube so if the going gets too bad, you can carry the bike by it

    There's a post on Copenhagenize about that seat tube handle:

  17. I love the seat tube handle!
    Thanks for the link, missed that post.

  18. I was going to link to that jlivingston site. The carry handle mentioned by Nordic anon was on a bike in the Oregon Manifest Challenge.
    Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

    So everything on the bike has a center mass, or let's just say weight. The same principle that applies when carrying loads applies in frame design: you just want stuff as close to center and as low as possible so it doesn't shift around. In the case of a frame alone, it doesn't shift around per se, but you still have to move the weight around. Like on my Robert, the CoG is so high I don't like riding it out of the saddle, so I don't ride it at all.

    With these bikes, they're basically step-throughs which take away the top tube (high CoG, weight up high) and attach it close to the bb (low CoG, weight low). Because the stabilizer of twisting/bending forces of the tt is gone, some builders attach the second dt with more gussetting/material or use a monotube, further lowering the mass.

    As you've seen, it's a lot easier to maneuver and more confidence inspiring.

  19. Leo - It's not the Pilen's ability to cycle off road in of itself that makes me call it "mountainbike-ish." The Austrian Steyr I ride in Vienna has the same "swan frame" construction, wide tires, is also pretty cool to ride off road and on cobblestones, but it handles nothing like the Pilen. In the Pilen there is something specific that makes it feel different, and it feels like it has something to do with the weight distribution. When you say that it is a dead ringer for the vintage bikes, do you mean just the looks or have you tried riding it?

  20. Mark M. Fredrickson, I actually like the high bottom bracket for urban riding. I have a mid 80's rigid fork Specialized Rockhopper modified into an upright swept back bar balloon tire city bike, just as a few have described above. I occasionally need to hop curbs, depending on route. If I do I leave the tour bike at home. With the high bottom bracket mtb, with relatively short chain stays, I can jump any curb as tall as 10 inches without dismounting, and I find that to be a huge convenience in the city.

  21. Re bottom brackets - the Paper Bicycle actually has a very low one, which is one way in which it differs from an actual MTB. The low BB is to enable full leg extension whilst being able to put a toe down during traffic stops. Works wonderfully, but I got stuff caught on the BB off road.

  22. Ground Round Jim - it seems a low CoG wouldn't apply to the Retrovelo, which seems more based on early 80s mountain bikes that had full sized frames. But I can see how it would apply to the other 3 featured bikes.

  23. You got stuff caught in the bottom of the chain case probably, but the bb is where the cranks attach.

    Low can provide stability too if everything else is right, design-wise.

    I'd have no issues taking the Paper Bike down Repack Road.

  24. Adam, give me a Retrovelo and I'll let you know in about 5 seconds.

  25. "the bb is where the cranks attach"

    Right. That's where it got stuck.

  26. Early mountain bikes did owe a lot to the design of cruisers and the old military utility bikes, so it's probably not surprising that rugged commuter bikes have a lot in common with their mud-bound brethren.

    I used a singlespeed mountain bike for years as a heavy-duty commuter, and it worked beautifully no matter what I did with it. Potholes, curbs, dirt roads and even stairways were no problem. Ugly? Yeah, but it got me to work when people with cars were stuck. My current commuter, while pretty durable, doesn't quite match it for indestructability, and I sometimes miss it.

  27. Sorry. Ess happens, but off road c'est normal.

    Deetoo Artoo + Paper Bike. Dare you.

  28. Velouria - how'd you get stuff stuck all the way up there with that unusual tubular chaincase-like frame on both sides? You'd think that would be the most protected bottom bracket in the world.

  29. Ah. That reminds me that I need to take a good "bottom bracket p0rn" shot on this one. There is no actual chaincase around the BB itself, just the support structure. Hard to explain without photos!

  30. I agree about the new MTB's being fugly...but I really like the older steel ones. I've got one that you'd probably hate, but that I think is kinda nice looking - an early '90's GT Outpost. Pretty low-end, but fun in the mud and, I'm thinking, a fairly solid touring bike...I plan on retrofitting it with MTB drop bars, high profile front cantilever (leave the U brake in back), racks and fenders and use it for around-the-state touring this next summer. Gotta keep the rough tires on it for winter though :-)

  31. Velouria:

    I guess that when I say "dead ringer" I mean the looks, everything I can glean from your photos. As far as I can see, the geometrys are very similar. But I have never ridden one.

    However I have ridden several vintage Swedish and Finnish bikes of this type, one every summer for years. All that you say about the Pilen sounds like you are talking about a 1943 Cresent or a 1955 Finnish Tunturi. I attribute the feel of these bikes to a) a long wheel base, b) somewhat relaxed geometry, making for steering that is forgiving of slight mis-judgements, c) low weight distribution that comes from the swan frame design.I have never seen a real pre-1980 example with anything but a rather low geared single speed with coaster brake.

    They are heavy, but accelerate good as the wide tires make for low rolling resistance and they feel surprisingly nimble at higher speeds. I always steer one of these beasts with my arms out straight, as if I were riding a Harley chopper. People here ride them on ice without studded tires. My seat heigth for these bikes is maybe a full 10 cms lower than for a road bike with drop bars.

    I am considering building up the '43 Cresent with wide drop bars to lower center of gravity more...


  32. Leo - I too thought I knew what the Pilen would ride like based on its looks, but it surprised me.

    "a) a long wheel base, b) somewhat relaxed geometry, making for steering that is forgiving of slight mis-judgements,"

    I have not tried a vintage Swedish or Finnish bike yet. I have ridden several vintage Dutch and English bikes that fit this description, and none of them handle like the Pilen.

    "c) low weight distribution that comes from the swan frame design."

    The vintage Austrian Steyr Waffenrad bikes also have the swan frame construction (as well as a&b mentioned earlier) and again, totally different.

    There must be more to geometry and weight distribution than meets the naked eye.

    I am arguing this point not because I am intent on proving you wrong, but because I am genuinely curious. If you have the opportunity to try a Pilen and compare it to the vintage Swedish bikes that look like it, I would love to hear your impressions.

  33. I also have an older rigid steel mountain bike (Haro Impulse) which I added upright bars to and fenders and it's a great bike to ride around the city.

  34. Velouria:

    I'll keep my eyes open. I am curious too. I have never tried a modern "remake". My newest bike is 26 years old.


  35. I salvaged a discarded 1990's Giant Boulder 550 frame and I found that it makes a good dry weather commuter bike (no mudguards) - it's converted down to a 6-speed (rear derailleur only) with upright bars and has balloon like Serfas drifter tyres. Like some other readers, I like the older steel framed non-suspended MTBs that don't have thick tubing or ugly decals - they look much like traditional bikes and ride quite well.

  36. Found the discussion about center of gravity interesting. My venerable Peugeot mixte (1970) has a lower center of gravity that made it more stable than the comparable diamond design "mens" Peugeots of the era. My current steed, a step-thru Electra Townie, also has a fairly low center of gravity. It's a bit twitchy getting started, but is pretty good once one gets rolling. You just have to allow for a wider turning radius w/ this design. The front suspension does help roll over uneven terrain (potholes, road debris). (I would think that the front suspension could be termed a "MTB legacy").

    The Urbana reminds me vaguely of the Townie design, though the crankshaft isn't so far forward.

    Here is a fun website on military bikes for those who are interested:

  37. Calculating trail is normally done by hypothesizing a tire contact patch directly below the front axle. This is fine with a narrow highly inflated tire whose contact patch may be a lot like a single ideal point. With soft tires the contact patch is large. Over uneven ground the contact patch is likely well ahead of the ideal point, and forces over the area of the contact patch are uneven. Actual trail on rough ground will usually be much less than calculated trail, and actual trail will vary continually.

    As an example consider a bicycle riding over a high curb. At the moment of contact most any bike will have negative trail.

    So it gets complicated. On front-suspended bikes it's even more ambiguous since the head angle varies constantly. I have no conclusions. Making the array of observations Velouria is working on may be as helpful as any theoretical understanding.

    The center of gravity argument is less than convincing. The biggest mass on any bicycle is it's rider. CoG changes most readily by leaning forward, sitting back, raising and lowering the saddle. While you do those things, BicycleX remains distinctively BicycleX. The changes in CoG that can be made by moving the toptube up or down are smaller than the change effected by a saddlebag carrying an innertube and an apple. Moving the bottom bracket up or down has a larger effect on CoG but also (more importantly?) changes all leverage forces on the bike - more frame drop means the effective lever arm from pedals to axles is longer and the lever arm from saddle to axle is shorter. Also the lever arm from saddle to ground contact is shorter. JCW

  38. I'm so glad you introduced me to the Pilen. I test rode it last week and am head over heels in love.

    And saving frantically.


  39. Hmmm . . . Velouria, it sounds to me as though you're getting into mountain biking through the back door. "Grassy hills and rock-strewen trails?" Next thing we know, you'll be riding a really fugly MTB on really gnarly single-track. Be careful, it's slippery slope -- both literally and figuratively!

  40. I wonder if my Retrovelo feels "right" because I spent my entire childhood on a steel MTB.

  41. neighbourtease - Me too! I went through 3 steel MTBs from age 11 to 17.

  42. A little late to the party here . . . I love refurbing late 80s MTBs (non suspension) into city bikes. Their relaxed geometry makes them ideal for this purpose. I'm currently riding an 87 Trek 830 set up with Torker Graduate bars, Kenda Kross Plus tires, fenders, rear rack and V-brakes (came with cantis).

    IGH & internal brakes are ideal for city bikes. I love the design & concept of the Pilen and Urbana. Where MTB conversions shine is in their ability to have very low gears (trailer towing). I also prefer the 26" wheels for my winter commuting - which includes some unpaved trails.


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