Monday, February 28, 2011

Bicycle Shopping: What Do We Expect?

Last week, I wrote about my sister's search for a basic, comfortable roadbike and in the post I explained that she is looking for a "normal" bike - That is, for a bike that is neither vintage, nor classic, nor lugged, nor artisanal - just a regular bike in the sense that one could walk into a bicycle shop off the street and buy it for a reasonable price. Once again I thank you all for the feedback, which was immensely helpful, and I will post an update regarding what bike she ends up getting. But on a separate note, I was intrigued by the category of replies that "pathologized" the way I described my sister's criteria - a few even questioning whether she ought to be buying a bike at all under the circumstances. Those comments made me think about expectations when it comes to bicycle shopping. And frankly, I think that "we" - i.e. those of us who are "into" bicycles, and especially into classic and vintage bicycles - can be out of touch with what people who "just want a bike" expect. Here are some of my observations about first time bike buyers' expectations that I've gathered from personal conversations and reader emails over the past two years:

It's too complicated
I think it is accurate to say that most people off to buy their first bicycle as an adult initially expect for the experience to be fairly simple. They envision being able to walk into a bike shop, to ask for some advice, and to walk out with a nice shiny bike. And I don't think that this attitude makes them "lazy" or "not committed to cycling." I think it is an entirely normal and healthy attitude. Unfortunately, hopes for simplicity are all too frequently crushed as bicycle shopping turns frustrating. The bicycles suggested at bike shops are often uncomfortable or otherwise unappealing, and the customer does not know how to express what exactly does not feel right. Purchasing a bicycle should be simple. But I believe that both bicycle shops and the industry at large are out of touch with what customers actually need.

It's too expensive
I receive lots of emails from people looking to buy their first bike, and the figure $500 comes up over and over again as the upper limit of their budget - regardless of how well off the person is. While that expectation is unrealistic, I think that from the customer's point of view - assuming that they are not familiar with the industry - it is reasonable. Once they get to know the market a little better, chances are that they will come to terms with spending considerably more on a bike than they initially expected to. I blame this discrepancy on the industry and not on the customer being "cheap." In theory, large manufacturers could churn out attractive and functional bikes for $500, but for a variety of reasons, they do not.

I don't want to be a bike expert, I just want to ride
I hear this one repeatedly, and I agree. Wanting to buy a bike should not require one to become an expert in bikes first. There is a difference between cycling and being "into bicycles," and it is perfectly normal to be the former without becoming the latter.

The fact is, that those of us who enjoy customising bicycles, building up bicycles from the frame up, hunting for rare parts and refurbishing vintage bikes, seeking out unique and unusual bicycles that are only available in specialty shops, and so on... are not in the majority, and I think we need to respect that. Most people - even those who are excited about cycling - just want to go to a "regular" bike shop, buy a bike, ride it without problems, and fiddle as little with it as possible. There is nothing wrong with that, and I think it would be misguided of me to try and convince everyone I meet that my preferences are "better." And in fact I don't think they are better; they are just different.

I would venture to say that a large percentage of would-be cyclists in North America are turned off from cycling by the discrepancy between their expectations and their actual experiences, when it comes to buying their first bicycle. And it seems to me that rather than blame the "victim," it would be more useful to rethink how the bicycle industry approaches potential customers. I have spoken to way too many people at this point who've told me that they'd love to cycle but are having terrible luck finding a bike. And that just isn't right.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Moultons, Modern and Vintage

Local bike shop Harris Cyclery has begun carrying Moulton bicycles, and I had not seen one up close until now. They had a dove gray one in the window that called out to me, so I took it outside for a closer examination and test ride.  Jon Harris then brought out another Moulton - one of his personal bikes made in the 1960s, that had once belonged to Sheldon Brown. It was informative to see the two models side by side.

The new Moulton is the TSR 9 model, manufactured by Pashley-Moulton.

Moulton bicycles have a complicated history. Production initially began in 1962, then ceased in the 1970s and resumed in the 1990s - with some models produced under license by Pashley.

This bicycle has a Moulton headbadge on the head tube and a Pashley headbadge on the seat tube.

The frame design is called a space frame, and it allows for greater rigidity and lighter weight in comparison to traditional steel frames.

Moultons are not folding bicycles, but are "separable" and can be disassembled for travel.

In addition to their unique geometry and small wheels, Moultons are distinguishable by their suspension system - which they had originally implemented decades before it would become common.

Components on the Pashley-Moulton models are modern and off-the-shelf, which keeps the price "reasonable" (this one is just over $2,000) compared to the higher-end models.

My impression of the space-frame Moulton is somewhat confused. I find it architecturally interesting and beautifully constructed. However, I do not quite understand what makes it a good bicycle. I mean, is one expected to buy it because it is unusual looking and has a cool history, or does it have unique characteristics that make it superior to other bicycles? By moderns standards, it is not a lightweight bike by any means (26 lb without pedals), which somewhat defeats the small wheel construction. And the complicated frame structure - while beautiful to look at - makes me worry that I'll get my foot stuck somewhere in there while attempting to step over it. It just doesn't seem like a very practical design to me. Also, to my eye the handlebar set-up on this model clashes with the frame, and it seems to me that some effort could have been made to keep the price down while finding more elegant components.

I tried to ride the bicycle, but the front suspension felt so powerful that I did not feel comfortable test riding it in the winter. The Co-Habitant rode it briefly and did not feel stable on it, which may have to do with the suspension as well - neither of us is used to it. The conditions on this day were not ideal for properly test riding bikes, so I'd like to try it again when it gets warmer. But on first impression, the Moulton space frame bike did not feel entirely welcoming.

On the other hand, I was surprised by how friendly and accessible the vintage "F-frame" model felt in comparison. This is one of the original models, introduced in the early 1960s - the Major Deluxe. It came with a 4-speed hub, front and rear rack, and a large bag mounted on the rear. Here is a neat promotional video from when these bikes first came out.

Despite being somewhat heavier than the currently produced space-frame, I found the vintage f-frame easier to lift and carry.

The step-over is considerably lower as well. In other ways too, the vintage Moulton just felt like a better fit for my proportions; it felt very natural.

And of course the classic components are absolutely charming.

The North-roadish handlebars are more comfortable than the straight bars on the modern production bikes.

The fenders and racks are extremely useful, and the bag is huge. In essence, it is a small, practical bike - not as visually striking as the later space-frame, but more user-friendly.

I appreciated the opportunity to have a closer look at the Moultons, and would like to properly test ride the modern production bicycle once Spring arrives. While I can see myself owning and riding the vintage F-frame model, I find the newer space-frame model intimidating and somewhat impractical, though visually compelling. Moulton owners and enthusiasts are welcome to contribute their impressions.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

No Car, Must Travel

It has been two and a half months now without the car - pretty much the entire winter. For the most part we did not miss it. But now that the blizzards have subsided, it is time to get things done. We'll start going on photoshoots and other trips again soon, and there are other ways in which we will need it as well. This weekend was our first experiment with alternative options.

I needed to get to Harris Cyclery (10 miles away) to drop off a bicycle along with some extra wheels and rims, since they'll be building new wheels for the Bella Ciao Superba prototype and also replacing the headset. After considering various options, we decided to take a taxi there with all the stuff, then take the commuter train back. Ordering the taxi, we specified that there would be two people plus a bicycle. Nevertheless, they sent a small sedan and great fun was had by all as we stuffed both me and the bicycle in the back seat. Still, we managed to fit everything in and arrived at Harris without incident. The fee for the taxi was reasonable. Total time for the trip, including calling and waiting for a taxi, wrangling in the bicycle, and the drive itself: 1 hour. Had we rented a car, it probably would have taken longer than the taxi, as a result of having to first go and get the rental. Had we driven our own car, it would have taken 30 minutes.

After getting done everything that we needed done, we had several hours to kill before heading back. The Saturday train schedule limited our choice for when to travel considerably: There was basically one train in the early afternoon and another late at night. So we test rode some Moultons and wandered around the three shops on the Main street, before heading for the Commuter Rail station.

We arrived several minutes early. The station is outdoors and the train was 7 minutes late. In freezing temperatures, that wait is more difficult to endure than it sounds. The other people on the platform looked miserable as they paced back and forth to keep warm and cursed the train's (apparently habitual) lateness.

But finally it arrived, and thankfully it was warm inside. The numbness in my face began to subside as we headed toward Boston. Once in the city, we transferred to the subway, then walked home from the station.

Total time for the trip, including waiting for the commuter train, transferring onto the subway line and walking home: 1 hour 15 minutes. But if we include the time wasted because of the spotty train schedule, then the return trip was really over 3 hours. Had we driven our own car, it would have been 30 minutes. In other words, an activity that would have taken us a total of two hours had we used our private vehicle, wound up taking up half of our day - which is not exactly a success story. Next time we will give car rental or zipcar a go, but it is too bad that public transportation in the greater Boston area is not more convenient.

Friday, February 25, 2011

On Handmade Bicycle Shows

[image via prollyisnotprobably]

Continuing with the theme of framebuilding, today is the first day of NAHBS 2011 - the North American Handmade Bicycle Show, held this year in Austin, Texas. I received a couple of invitations this time around and for a brief moment considered going... then remembered the state of my finances and swiftly came down to Earth! Besides: To tell the absolute truth, my feelings on NAHBS are mixed.

[image via YiPsan Bicycles]

On the one hand, NAHBS is a great thing. A trade show where some of the best independent framebuilders and component manufacturers showcase their newest work, it is a spectacular multi-day event. If you are into handmade bicycles, attending the show will enable you to visit numerous framebuilders all at once, compare their work, and chat to them about their process. There is also media coverage, which gives exposure not just to individual framebuilders, but to the culture of custom bicycles at large.


New designs, accessories and components are shown off at NAHBS, making rounds on the bicycle blogs and giving us all something to talk about for weeks.

[image via J. Maus]

So, what's the downside? I think there are several issues here. First off, it seems to me that the culture that has developed around the show creates unfair pressure on framebuilders to exhibit, which in turn is a huge financial strain for most of the builders. The fee for a booth at NAHBS is quite a large sum. Add to that the price of airfare and housing, plus the transport and insurance of numerous expensive bicycles, and the cost of exhibiting quickly adds up to several thousand dollars. Most framebuilders I know - even the "big names" - can hardly make ends meet as it is, and feeling compelled to exhibit at NAHBS every year and swallow the expenses involved makes life more difficult still. While it is true that no one is forcing them to go, there is implicit pressure. With NAHBS positioning itself as the biggest/greatest handmade bicycle show, potential customers who follow all the hyped up coverage start to expect framebuilders to exhibit at NAHBS. It is as if exhibiting in itself is perceived as a sign of industry recognition - which in actuality it is not: Any framebuilder with appropriate credentials can pay for a booth.

The other major issue for me, is that I am simply not a fan of centralised and grandiose anything. I don't like the idea of there being "the" handmade bicycle show, which is how NAHBS presents itself. Instead, I'd prefer numerous smaller, regional shows, where the framebuilders exhibit on their own turf and visitors get to see not just the bikes themselves but also the flavours of the local framebuilding cultures. To me such a system seems more interesting, more diverse, and less wasteful of resources than what we get with NAHBS. I know that many may not agree with me, and I mean neither to offend nor to push my views on others - but that is how I see it. We do currently have some regional shows, and my wish is for them to grow stronger and more influential in the years to come. I heard great things about the Philly Bike Expo last year, and will try to make it to the New Amsterdam Bicycle Show in NYC this April. While I follow NAHBS with interest, I do not consider it to be a fully representative display of framebuilding talent.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Hand Brazing a Bicycle Frame

I was visiting Bryan at Royal H Cycles yesterday and was able to get some shots of the brazing process in action. Please don't interpret this as step-by-step instructions, but here is my attempt to explain how it's done:

The frame being built here is a lugged stainless steel beauty ordered by JP. The "main triangle" (seat tube, head tube, top tube and downtube) had already been finished before my visit, and Bryan was working on attaching the seat stays - the thin parallel tubes that connect the seat tube to the dropouts.

Here are the dropouts without the seat stays.

And here is Bryan applying flux to the dropout sockets, where they will connect to the stays. "Flux" is a protective chemical mixture that is part of the brazing process, and it is applied to the joints beforehand.

The dropouts are ready for the seat stays.

The seat stays are prepared.

And attached, with more flux added.

The same is done with the seat cluster.

Here is Bryan carefully arranging everything so that it stays in place.

It is crucial that everything is aligned perfectly. 

Really perfectly.

More perfectly still.

And there we go.

With more flux added for good measure.

But now, the good part. Fire! 

The joint is heated with a hand-held torch, then brazed together using silver or brass (silver is shown here). 

Close-up of the process. 

That little wire you see is the silver; it is melted into the joint by the torch.

Same procedure for the dropouts.

The process is quite beautiful - though best observed through a camera lens that allows you to stand back while enjoying a close-up view.

I lose track of time when absorbed in something like this, but the brazing did not take long. The key is precision - having steady hands and a good eye, so as to align all the parts perfectly, heat the joint evenly and distribute the silver properly. 

The dropouts post brazing. There is still a lot to do here, such as cleaning and finishing work, but this is the joint. This bicycle will have an internally geared hub, so these are technically "fork ends" rather than dropouts - but nice either way.

I hope this gives you some idea of how lugged steel frames are built, and a Thank You to Bryan for allowing me to photograph him working.  If you want to learn more about the hand brazing process, a good place to start is here, as well as this nice video from MAP Cycles. There is also a Framebuilders subforum on bikeforums that is quite helpful. While I have no plans to build frames myself, I enjoy learning how it is done and seeing the process up close.