Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Virtues of Versatility

Bella Ciao, Boston
For a couple of months now I've been riding only one bicycle for transportation instead of switching between several, and I've got to say that I like it. Not only that, but I am realising that strictly speaking, the others I own are not really necessary, as this one is sufficiently versatile to do everything I need. I've never felt this way toward another transport bicycle before, which is why I've always had multiples: at the very least one IGH bike for local errands and winter cycling, and a lighter, derailleur-geared bike for long distance trips with hills. But now that division of labor is no longer neeeded.

The bicycle I am riding is a modified Bella Ciao Donna that I finally have all to myself again after it served as a guinea pig for a project I was working on. It is not perfect at everything. My other transport bike is a vintage Gazelle and it's a cushier, more luxurious ride with greater carrying capacity. I also have a Royal H mixte that is faster, lighter weight, easier uphill, and equipped with better lighting. But the Gazelle cannot be ridden long distances efficiently. And the mixte cannot be ridden in the winter, plus the frame can be a pain to mount and dismount in some outfits. Neither of the two would work as an "only bike." But the Bella Ciao can handle long distances, does a decent job of tackling hills, is suitable for winter, and accommodates any outfit. The 3-speed drivetrain keeps things simple. The powdercoat and chaincase keep it maintenance-free. The handling has a distinctly vintage feel that is not for everyone, but works well for me. Sure I've wished for more cush over potholes, more cargo capacity and more gears while riding this bike. But I can count on one hand the number of times that has happened over the past two months.

Versatility is not an exciting characteristic, because it implies compromise. "Jack of all trades, master of none" sort of thing. But I guess for transportation cycling I am finding that the jack of all trades is winning me over - at least for the time being. More than anything, I think the trick is finding that sweet spot of a bike - what one person considers versatile may not be sufficiently versatile for another. But if you do find one that does it for you, it can be such a relief! Getting around on the same bike regardless of destination has simplified my life considerably, giving me a new appreciation for versatility. 

63 comments:

  1. It's easy to get caught up in acquiring as many bikes as possible just because we love them. Recently, I've come to the same conclusion as you and mine is a different type of favored bike than yours - as you point out.

    Isn't transportation cycling supposed to be about simplicity and versatility? Isn't that why we ride to the store, do errands?

    Here's mine.
    http://anniebikes.blogspot.com/2011/11/versatile-ross-mount-saint-helens.html

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  2. My idea of a "do it all" bike mostly has to do with the range of tires it can accomodate. My main workhorse is a steel cyclocross with fender/rack bosses.

    It's good with narrow slicks for the quick coffeehouse run and club rides to icy commutes with studded 35c's. I use it for (over)loaded runs to the recycle facility on tires sized between those two, to mention just a few uses.

    When it's in the shop (I ride a lot, but I don't trust myself for major overhaul work), I feel somewhat at a loss, since my other bike can't tolerate more than a 28c, and any load has to be on my back!

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  3. I've really fallen in love with the Bella Ciao Corvo Citta Donna and I dream of owning one one day. You have just increased my desire!

    Another gorgeous photo. I wish you would produce a calendar!

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  4. Two questions:

    1: Why can the mixte not be ridden in the winter? Some sort of pact with the builder?

    2) Why not put better lights on the Donna?

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  5. I feel the same way about my Italian loop frame (abici)... It's only single speed and I still feel it works for 98% of what I would ever want from a city bike.

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  6. Personally, I think a good "all 'rounder" is more appealing than some of the more specialized options. Yeah, sometimes you want a go-fast bike or a heavy hauler, but they've always felt more like tools for a particular job, whereas the Jack-of-all-trades bike becomes your daily companion.
    Or another way to think of it, I may appreciate my power drill, dremel tool, set of metric wrenches and reciprocating saw when I need them, but my trusty Swiss Army knife is what goes with me everywhere.

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  7. Oh geez, just when the NEED for a Superba was beginning to subside.

    Are there any updates on when/if Bella Ciao is really going go produce a second generation?
    Gina

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  8. Wow.... I wish I could be out biking now...

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  9. merry christmas to you too, lovely lady lovely bike!
    the love you are sending in our direction colours my head in a seasonal fashion...
    -
    lots of love back to you - and to all your readers!
    wishing you wonderful holidays!

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  10. Versatility can be a tremendous attribute. For years the Celtics thrived on it. Players that could do a little bit of everything. Havlicek, Cowens ,Silas. Yaz owned the Green Monster but could have won a Golden Glove at any position. Brad Park, Ray Bourque could do it all. Belichick's teams . Sorry, I think it was that exquisite shot of the Beantown got me reminiscing.

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  11. When I bought my current bike, I had to try to figure out the most versatile answer I could, for the simple reason that limited funds and space make keeping multiple bikes not a viable option for me. The answer, for me, turned out to be basically a touring bike, which I ride every day to work, in all kinds of weather, can carry fairly heavy loads, and is fun and comfortable to ride on long rides. It is not great at some things--it is not as fast as a road bike, and requires some maintenance--but it has done everything I wanted to do. So I've been pretty pleased with my choice.

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  12. I'm going to go out on a limb and attribute this acceptance, among other factors, as an unintended consequence of road riding.
    Haterz, do your thing.

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  13. Ah that old saw about jack of all trades. I found an antidote to it. Author Heinlein said something about specialization being for insects. I remind myself of that when I'm struggling with my "jack of all trades" tendencies.

    Many thanks to you I'll be visiting Harris Cyclery because of your blog to test ride a few of the bikes. Special trip for me while visiting the in-laws out east. It will be my "treat" of the trip. What a Christmas present :D

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  14. jens - I was actually a bit worried that you guys might be insulted by this post. Whew : )

    Also... I just really, really want to make sure this is not interpreted as my recommending this specific bike as "the" versatile bike for everyone. It works for me, and the more I own it the more I appreciate it - but that's as far as I will go. If you like how the Raleigh Sports rides (also a surprisingly versatile bike BTW) but wish it were lighter and had 700C wheels, then I daresay you will like the Bella Ciao. Otherwise, maybe not so much.

    Jules - the mixte has derailleur gearing and rim brakes. Not ideal for snow and ice, at least not for me. See here. Also, when I wear big winter boots, the toe overlap issue I have with it gets worse, and I just can't deal with that in slippery conditions.

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  15. GR Jim - What do you mean exactly? (I write this upon my return from an infamous local Hill Training ride!)

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  16. I mean tapping out a rhythm for a couple of hours puts your mind and body in a different place. You just get to see other bikes in a different way, most often like, "I just want to ride, doesn't matter which one."

    Do you have numbers for the local HT - miles, elevation change?

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  17. My Brompton is that bike for me. Easy mount, dismount, can carry a ton of stuff, wide range 6 speed gearing, great lighting, easily "fits" into all situations. And with fenders, racks, dyano lighting still only about 30lbs. Great versatile bike.

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  18. I only own one bike, the Raleigh DL-1, and it's as versatile as I need it to be. Sure, it's not always easy or pleasant riding up those hills on a 40-some-pound bike with 40 pounds of stuff in the bags, but it can be done when it needs to be, and 98% of the time, I don't really think about the bike other than just operating it. I've had two other bikes (since starting to ride for transportation), both distinctly different from this one, and this is by far my favorite. It has everything I want to make it low-maintenance, practical for all weather, I can carry a good 150 lbs of stuff, besides me, on it, and it just does everything I have so far desired or needed a bicycle to do for me.

    Of course, I'm not really into recreational cycling, which certainly would change the criteria, and would probably require at least a second bike - but I don't feel any need to get another bike simply for transportation (unless you decide to get rid of the Gazelle, in which case I will be sorely tempted, but may still resist) :)

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  19. GR Jim - I'll try to get the profile. Will write about it tomorrow.

    portlandize - I've considered selling the Gazelle, but it would have to be local; there is no way I am shipping it! The Gazelle is actually pretty good, if it weren't for those trips that are 20 miles+ with some hills. She can do it, but it's not something that's sustainable with regularity - at least for the sake of saving time.

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  20. I do everything on this bike, including recreational road riding and trail riding. It's really the only one I need. That doesn't mean that I don't covet others...
    http://www.ecovelo.info/2011/06/20/bicycle-commuter-profile-mona-raza/#more-28740

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  21. How'd I miss your ecovelo profile! Great looking Soma mixte, how do you like it with drop bars?

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  22. Thanks Velouria! I love the drops on the mixte. They are just the most comfortable bars for me, tiny carbon WSD bars salvaged from my Trek. I was going to build an upright commuter with Soma sparrow bars, but when my road bike died, I knew that this bike would have to do everything, so I used the drops. They are pretty necessary for most riding in the Blue Ridge.

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  23. I love my Raleigh Sports now that it has lighter aluminum rims (and the commensurate better braking). No matter my brief love affairs with other bikes, I keep coming back to The Raleigh. It just... goes where I take it.

    Love the look of the Bella Ciao, but would have to get another color :). You and your elegant muted colors...

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  24. I think in general we purchase and possess way more than we need, bikes are no different. Versatility is indeed a virtue.

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  25. Anon 2:30 - I think that is true, and I also think that the increasing niche-ilisation of products is largely responsible for it. A gadget that's perfect for one thing but one thing only, means owning a gazillion gadgets.

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  26. I can go with the one bike to rule them all,
    as long as we are allowed two wheelsets.
    Skinny go fast wheels and fat tire wheels
    for touring, dirt and snow. So 1 bike, 2 sets
    of wheels and 4 sets of tires and a couple
    cassettes for the the fat tire wheels, touring
    and general. See how having 1 bike can simplify
    your life.
    Scott G.

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  27. Excellent, I have been waiting for this! Looking forward to your Gazelle FS post :)

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  28. : )

    I will probably not have any more FS posts here. If you are local and interested in the Gazelle, please contact me via email. I am not 100% sure yet that I will sell it, but will get in touch if I do.

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  29. Velouria, I had my local bike shop add a larger (?) sprocket to the internal hub of my Superba and it increased (?) the gear inches to make it easier to get up the hills in my area. Maybe it is because of the hills, or maybe because I'm just not as strong as most people, but I go much slower on the Superba compared to my mixte, and I can't be sure why. It might be because I can't stand up and pedal with the Superba. It just feels so weird and awkward. I assumed that happened with when the seat/front tube were so relaxed? Has anyone else had that experience? Also, because the pedals are farther in front of my seat (rather than under/closer to my seat), it feels harder to accelerate and go uphill. That being said, with the new gearing this bike is blissful when I don't feel like I have to get somewhere super fast. And I regularly note all of the benefits it offers over the mixte (comfort, smoothness, stability, greater carrying capacity, chain case, etc... Ill blog about it later). But I can't compare it to an even bigger loop frame because I've never ridden one.

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  30. I really like ScottG's comment. Two sets of wheels could make all the difference if you just want to have one bike!

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  31. Julia L - The Bella Ciao is fast and light in the context of upright city bikes with internally geared hubs, but it can never be a match for a typical mixte - which is a much more aggressive bicycle, typically with road geometry and tubing. They are just not of the same category. My mixte is also faster and easier uphill than the Bella Ciao, though the Bella Ciao's performance is sufficient for the topography of my long distance routes.

    The pedals under your saddle issue on the other hand can be addressed by moving your saddle forward and/or getting a straight seatpost (see this post!).

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  32. Excellent - I have been MTBer, club rider, pseudo-racer, fixed fanatic and single-speeder. I've now built up a thinking-persons bike around a highend steel road-oriented MTB frame with gears from 20" to 105", Nirvana!

    Most people dismiss it as a hybrid though - heathens!

    All my old bikes are for sale next month and I am liberated by only having ONE bike to maintain. Just like when we were kids.

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  33. I'm so excited to read this post... as I recently put a (big ol') deposit down on a Bella Ciao Neorealista, SD duomatic, freewheel... in that Vetro Blu -- same as the color on your 100-miler ride. I live in a flat place, so it will be a perfect fit... versatility, and just a beautiful design. Again, so happy to read this! :)

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  34. Anon 5:22 - Nice! Ask for the Columbus tubing version if you can afford it, they are lighter and the ride quality feels a tad nicer to me. (My personal bike is not Columbus tubing, but the blue Neorealista I did the 100 miles on was.)

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  35. "My Brompton is that bike for me. Easy mount, dismount, can carry a ton of stuff..."

    I have a sick feeling that if I were to get a Brompton that would end up being my one and only transport bike as well. So I think one reason I am not getting one is that I like having a full sized loop frame bike and don't want to end up with none.

    Also, the carrying thing - It surprises me that Brompton is not better known for its amazing hauling capacity. I mean wow, those things will take enormous front bags, not to mention the rear rack option. Sigh. Step away from the Brompton...

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  36. I am interested in purchasing a Bella Ciao. Any suggestions as to where I can purchase one?

    Thank you

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  37. Hi again, Velouria. I ended up getting Columbus tubing... sort of by accident. I wanted the Blu Vetro and the paint was discontinued from the supplier. So I got the last blue frame... and it happens to be Columbus. :) Get it in February sometime... so excited :)

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  38. Thank you! I will send an email! Happy Holidays! BTW LUV your blog!

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  39. Ah yes I remember that paint was a limited run. It is a very unusual colour, you'll see; never seen anything like it before and it's hard to capture in pictures. Enjoy!

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  40. Funny about Brompton. While you seem to be moving towards it recently I test rode one prepared to like it a lot.

    Did. Not. At. All.

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  41. Eh, mostly because it didn't ride more like a regular bike for me. I love the engineering and the thought behind how every little piece is thought out.

    The wheels are are slightly small for me; but I'm ok w/20 inchers theoretically. I know it contributes to a very compact fold. Accidentally got the fold stuck when on the test ride, had to walk it like a sick dog back.

    If I had to take it on the train often, or plane for that matter, store it under my desk or in coat check I'm sure my focus would change from it being a bike to something more like a very useful tool. That said it still is way better than the Bike Friday I rode.

    Also rode a Soma Mini Velo which was a hoot. No folding tho.

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  42. Interesting. I had trouble folding and unfolding it, but I think I am just spatially challenged and if I used the bike a lot I would get the hang of it. I was fine with the small wheels. The bigger problem for me was the front end twitchiness. Also, unfortunately I could tell the difference between the regular all-steel frame and the frame with the ti fork and rear triangle - softer ride quality on the latter, but also much more $$.

    Never tried a Bike Friday. Did not like the couple of Dahons I tried.

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  43. It was twitchy for me for like 30 seconds, then I just relaxed and try not to input much. The Brommie had the firm block, which is pretty much recommended for everyone used to a normal bike.

    The "stick" happened because the bike had the extra long seat post, which I collapsed, pressing against a rubber stop that locked the fold in place.

    Funny because last time I was in the shop the owner was considering BFs. I said consider Brommies. Voila. They are selling like hot cakes.

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  44. Bromptons are great for the city esp as a second bicycle. I got one recently (usually ride a heavy Dutch bicycle). I like the Brompton for quick local trips and errands but oddly, prefer my Dutch bicycle for commuting. I like being more upright in heavy NYC traffic; I feel more visible; more easily aware of traffic around me; and -- while it might be my imagination -- I think cars give me more room. And over potholes, the Dutch bike feels considerably more stable. All that said, if something ever happened to my big bike, I could definitely see the Brompton as my one all-rounder and learn to compensate for the more forward position, etc.

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  45. Jack of all trades, master of none, but often better than a master of one.

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  46. It is nice to have a primary bike or at least a primary bike for a given use. Sometimes we learn a lot from tweaking an existing bike (so it's good to have a backup) or by switching from one to another and noting the differences. It can make another person's comments make sense, and be much more helpful than a typical review.

    I know there's some bike hoarding going on out there, but I think there's a lot of learning going on too! Congrats on finding a preferred city & town bike!

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  47. Somebody ought to do a research paper on "Serial Monogamy" as it applies to bicycles.

    ;)

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  48. If you've pinpointed your most versatile city bike, and you also have a fast road bike for fast jaunts (Moser), and a slightly less fast touring bike for touring and bike holidays (Riv), then where does that leave your mixte? I see it as somewhere in-between the Bella Chiao and the Moser, so I'm curious to know what niche you see it filling. Didn't you consider converting it to 650B at some point?

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  49. Good point. Strictly speaking, I do not "need" the mixte. I've never had to ride further than places like Lexington center and Newton for transportation, and there are routes to those locations that the Bella Ciao can handle easily. Slower than the mixte, but that's fine. Having said that, who knows what might happen in future. If we move to some part of the suburbs with serious hills, the BC will quickly become out of the question, yet I will still want to ride for transportation. So I am keeping the mixte, and in the meantime will enjoy it as a fast bike in summers.

    Oh and I still want to convert it to remove TCO, but it is more complicated that we thought. The fork would need to be replaced.

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  50. About the softer ride quality of Ti Bromptons. I'm not sure I could tell the difference but I have a steel Brompton and have tried some different tyres on the front wheel. The one I like best is the Greenspeed Scorcher at around 4 bar (this fits only on the front, it's too big for the rear, 40-349). This gives a soft ride but not squishy, and doesn't hurt my hands. I weigh 60kg. Schwalbe Kojaks at around 5-6 bar and Brompton's own tyres are also okay. I use Marathons in the winter but they are harsh, even at around 4 bar. On the rear, you can tension the suspension to taste by turning the bolt.

    Bromptons are great all-rounder bikes but maybe not the best choice in slippery winter conditions. They are arguably a little pricey if you need to leave the bike locked up outside, but on the other hand they are easier to take inside.

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  51. I'm sure your improved fitness level has a lot to do with your ability to do-it-all on a three speed. I'm a SS-all-the-time kind of guy on the mean hills of SF. The first two weeks were hellish, but now I can pretty much tackle any slope on my 42x18 relaxed cross bike.

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  52. I did not think I'd be able to tell the difference, and when I was making the argument to my spouse that we should just get them I suggested the all-steel versions. That would make it maybe financially viable, in conjunction with the cheaper lighting package. Knowing my ride quality sensitivity issues he disagreed and urged me to try the steel & ti versions side by side. So I did (same tires on both bikes). And damn, I could indeed feel a difference. My long term Brompton test ride was on the ti version, and I wasn't fully factoring that in.

    Re winter bikes, I remember reading somewhere about putting studs on the tires. I'd be concerned about the braking (rim brakes). Indoor storage should make the derailleur okay.

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  53. Stuart - But my fitness level does not change when I switch from one bike to another. My Gazelle (Dutch bike) is also a 3-speed and I cannot efficiently do 10+ mile errands on it. Also, I test ride bikes all the time and there are some with 8-speed hubs that I max out on the same mildly hilly terrain where the Bella Ciao does okay. I think a great deal depends on the specific bike + rider combo.

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  54. I considered getting just the ti fork and retro-fitting. Bicycle Quarterly once had an interesting fork test, where a traditional fork ran much smoother than a modern one with the bend in the middle. Maybe the Brompton would go smoother if they had the fork bend further down, classic style.

    But the tyre upgrade solved my problems. For wintertime I'll just suffer with the Marathons!

    A friend of mine has snow problems with the 3-sp chain tensioner, and I did too, but it went away with the 6sp derailleur, which is a little different. It wasn't that the snow clogged up like on a casette, it seemed more to do with the stickiness of the snow and I never figured it out.

    Chris Rust put studs on his Brompton, made out of small screws which he shortened using a bolt cropper.

    Brompton Ice Tyres

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  55. One thing I found about the Brompton twitchiness is that as soon as you put some weight on the front end it becomes much more stable. So in one sense the light feeling of the steering unloaded is a benefit. When the bike is loaded the steering doesn't feel too heavy even with a big load. I rarely ride mine without some weight on the front but even when I do I have gotten use to the light feeling, now it just feels quick. If you add a saddle bag to the Brompton front touring bag then the load hauling capacity is pretty amazing. It's interesting because the bike I had previously was an xtracyle, very long and stable. A couple of times I went from the xtracyle to testing a road bike and the road bike felt so twitchy I almost could not ride them. In comparison with the road bikes switching to the Brompton did not feel twitchy at all. My girlfriend recently got a Linus mixte, with front basket and their canvas panniers. A very attractive bike. It got me thinking that maybe I would like to have a more classically styled bike to ride in addition to my Brommie. But every time I rode her bike and switched back to the Brompton, the Bromptons great ride and versatility quickly convinced me it's all the bike I need. At least for now.

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  56. Anon@2:13--I had a large/heavy photo bag in the front basket (20 lbs--testing front basket) and it was still twitchy.

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  57. Looks like BC are no longer making the Neorealista in blue:(

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  58. You mentioned the Bella requiring minimal maintenance due to the chainguard, but it looks like the rear of the chainguard is open - does this still keep the chain clean?

    I ask because I find there is virtually no cleaning or lubrication required on my Rudge and Gazelle with the full chain case, but when I removed a portion of the Gazelle case for a while (it was bent in a fall), I needed to replace the chain afterwards (dirt and rust) after a reasonably short period.

    I understand your point about the Gazelles. The Gazelle is a nice bike, but I find mine heavy and slow uphill compared to the Raleigh Sports (probably my choice for versatile bike outside of snow/ice).

    AD

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  59. AD - Somehow the chain is fine after 1 winter, and I rode the bike in pretty disgusting conditions, alternating between it and the Gazelle. Will report again after this winter. Also, to clarify there is an inside to the chaincase (i.e. it is not 1-sided), so only a small portion in the rear is open.

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  60. How would you describe the geometry of the BC Donna? Is the seat angled for sitting up straight with the feet pressing forward? That's my favorite position, and difficult to find except for the Dutch bikes...

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  61. I write from an island in New Zealand where certain qualities of Europe are slowly drifting in on the long-tides, or to be more accurate, upon the jet streams. First it was delectable restaurant food instead of boiled-grey mutton and smashed-potatoes; then barista coffee and vineyards aiming at European gold medals. Italian Slow Food is slowing making its way down under, and in 2012, we notice the idea of Slow Biking is dawning.

    In Europe of course, there is no word for Slow Biking since it is ubiquitous but down-under the bike shops mostly stock pseudo-racie bikes, mostly imitation mountain bikes that will never see dirt or the drop bar road racer for poor souls who only use it to go to the corner store. Try to find the classic English 3-speed bike in New Zealand and you have to look in some old fella’s shed where the colour is rust-dust brown with bleached flecks of swallow-guano.

    So, what bike do we import to New Zealand to cultivate Slow Biking down-under?

    After considerable time spent on the internet, coupled with testing of various components on our own bikes, the conclusion is Bella Ciao, although when return home we may make a few changes to the components that reflect our different-than-Europe riding conditions. The Sturmey-Archer S3X hub is one component we shall test before going, and may explore if (with sufficient advanced notice to the factory) it could be installed in lieu of the standard one or 3-speed hub.

    Thus in April we shall fly to Berlin, collect two Bella Ciaos from the home office – one Uomo, one Donna – ride them to Dresden for a family event and then via the Elba and Moldau river-cycle trails to Prague where the generous Emirates airlines offers to transport bicycles back to Auckland as 30kg of checked luggage in bike-sized boxes with no extra charge.

    So I write to thank you for your extensive information on so many bikes that enabled me to make a distance-decision in the absence of bike shop test drives. It shall be most interesting to see how the bikes ride in real life.

    In advance we are building up muscles on our own saddles (we will take them with us rather than start a two-week tour breaking in new B17 seats). We are also trying to work out what will be the best way to transport clothes and gear for two-weeks overseas including evening attire for a concert by the Dresden Philharmonic in honour of a deceased uncle. I’m leaning toward designing my own panniers to match the genteel elegance of the Bella Ciao. The Brooks Devons look good, but with a limit on cabin luggage weight, 4.4 kgs of deadweight leaves little for content.

    This morning I received an email from Jens, asking how I heard about Bella Ciao, in which he asked how I heard about their bikes, writing “I am guessing over the wonderful blogger from Boston who has fallen in love with our bicycles so much”.

    I will reply “yes”, but then as I was writing my reply, I realised that in lovelybike you have no name, only referred to by others as “the wonderful blogger”, and your nom-de-blog "velouria". So my question is a matter of etiquette: Do we refer to you as Velouria, the “wonderfully talented young lady from Boston”, “the legendary blogger Lovely Bicycle”, or is there a more personal name that can be used without outing you to your relations and busybodies?

    By way of introduction, my name is Claude and while I do not have a blog, my web presence is at www.villageforum.com.

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