Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Small Wheel Shoppers: Wren and Bobbin

Wren Bicycle
In my recent post about choosing a transportation bicycle one topic discussed in the comments was the available options for those who live in walkup apartments yet want a fully equipped upright step-through transportation bicycle. The thing about transportation bikes is that they tend to be on the large and heavy side, thus inconvenient for hauling up and down several flights of stairs on a daily basis - especially for those without a lot of upper body strength. The solution some might consider is a small wheeled bike. Not necessarily a folding bike, but what in England was at one time called a "shopper" - a bicycle with small wheels and a sturdy frame designed to withstand weight, equipped with fenders, racks and baskets.  The Raleigh Twenty was probably the most popular of these and now there are two new bikes from England that channel its features. I rode them briefly at Adeline Adeline when I visited New York.

Wren Bicycle
One of these is the Wren bicycle shown here. Stiff cromoly frame, 20" wheels with wide city tires, 3-speed hub, swept back handlebars, adjustable saddle height, fenders and front and rear racks with optional enormous wicker basket.  

Wren Bicycle
The front rack is attached to the frame at three separate points. It does not move when the wheel moves and it sits low to the ground, which stabilises the weight and does not noticeably impact handling. 

Wren Bicycle
With the combination of front and rear rack, this bicycle can carry as much weight as a full sized transportation bike, and the frame is built to withstand that. But the bike itself is not heavy when compared to a full sized upright step-through, and being small it is quite maneuverable through tight spaces. Carrying it up and down the stairs is no problem. The low standover provides the same benefits as a full sized step-through frame. And the short horizontal bar above the bottom bracket functions as a convenient handle for picking up the bike.

Bobbin Shopper at Adeline Adeline, NYC
While I was not able to get outdoor shots of the Bobbin Shopper, I did ride it briefly. The frame bears a strong resemblance the original Raleigh Twenty, but is lighter with tubing that is not as heavy-duty. Like the Wren, the Bobbin Shopper is equipped with 20" wheels, a 3-speed hub, fenders, a rear rack and an optional front basket. Unlike the Wren, the front brake is a caliper rather than a hub brake, there is a plastic saddle in place of the Brooks, and the handlebars are not swept back. The unicrown fork differs from the lugged crown fork on the Wren.

Bobbin Shopper at Adeline Adeline, NYC
The Bobbin Shopper's frame is not designed to carry quite as much weight as the Wren and the craftsmanship is not on the same level, but these things are reflected very fairly in the price difference: The Wren retails for $1,150, whereas the Bobbin Shopper is priced at $550.

Bobbin Shopper
At these different price points, the basic idea behind the bikes is the same: small wheels, simple frame design, low stand-over, easy to carry, rack in the rear, optional basket in the front, hub gears. Both bicycles are made in Taiwan. And both bicycles weigh around 30lb, depending on how you set them up. One thing I wish is that each manufacturer offered an optional dynamo lighting package and it's a pity they do not. 

Wren Bicycle
Having ridden each bicycle briefly, my impressions are not extensive, but I'll share them such as they are: The Wren is undoubtedly a smoother, more luxurious ride. It is simply a higher quality build. But it also felt a little peculiar in both fit and handling and took some getting used to. The frame is very long and I felt quite stretched out and leaned over even with the upright handlebars. The Wren's handling seems optimised for a front load and with the basket empty it took me a bit to get used to it. The Bobbin's fit is more standard and the handling was more intuitive for me on first try. I do not feel that the small wheels are a limitation on either bicycle for city riding. And both bikes felt delightfully maneuverable. For those choosing between the two bikes, I would say it comes down to price point and fit preferences. 

Not being folding bikes obviously means that neither bicycle can be made more compact than it already is, save for lowering the saddle. But one advantage of the non-folder is that the bike can be locked up outdoors in the city just as easily as full-sized bikes, whereas folding bicycles can be tricky to leave outside securely. I am a fan of this breed of bicycles and am glad more of them are emerging. What are your thoughts regarding non-folding small wheeled "shoppers"? 

59 comments:

  1. The unicorn strikes again! Curse you spell checker!

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    1. While it may have started as a malapropism, I kinda like the idea of unicorn forks. I've taken to deliberately referring to unicrown forks as unicorn forks. It adds a bit of whimsy to what is otherwise a bland component.

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    2. The unicorn pursues me relentlessly! I've finally just disabled auto-correct, so hopefully he will not trouble us again.

      I have been musing with an idea of getting unicorn fork decals though...

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  2. More "unicorn" forks? ;-)

    This makes me miss my Raleigh Twenty (the bottom bracket died, and I have yet to find replacement parts for it that won't blow the budget).
    Small-wheel bikes are particularly suited to low-speed maneuvering through urban and dense suburban areas, as well as being relatively easy to stow and portage. And, being over 6 feet tall and with a build more associated with football than cycling, that I've had no problems managing a 20" wheel bike, other than looking like a circus bear. With a quick seat adjustment, the same bike can accommodate both myself and my 6th-grader with no problem, making it easy to run errands around town.

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    1. The Co-Habitant manages on a 16" wheel Brompton very nicely and he is 6' tall and over 200lb at the moment. Those who don't think small wheels are capable just need to try these bikes for themselves.

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    2. Matt

      If it's less than museum quality run some brass in the threads and re-tap to 24TPI. My Twenty ran years that way, including lots of polo abuse. Wish I'd not given that one away.

      Yes, these bikes are great for polo.

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    3. I've thought of doing just that (and likely using a BMX spindle and crankset to make it easy to set up with that wide BB).
      The thing about the small wheels is that short spokes and tight circles mean they're actually pretty darn strong, and can take the extra stress of a heavier rider, components like stems and seatposts take a bit of strain when cranked out to big-and-tall proportions.
      I wouldn't necessarily want a 20"-wheeled bike as my primary transport, unless I had an even tinier living space than I already do, but they're a useful addition to one's stable that by nature don't take up too much extra room.

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    4. You are making me dig deep in the memory bank. We narrowed the BB on my old Twenty. Can't remember how far we took it. There were clearance and chainline issues but not too bad. This was long enough ago that Stronglight BBs were dirt cheap and there were still Italian bikes rolling on 72mm BB shells. If you could get the BB to normal 68 narrow there's unthreaded meat in the shell. Use a triple crank/spindle, outer position for the chainring. Keep messing around, you'll find something

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  3. I really want a bike like this and currently investigating the Skeppshult V bike. Seems perfect for taking on the train and riding around the city. Would love to see a company like Surly producing a bike like this - especially offering some "unisex" colour schemes since I'd go for a Wren but... in black.

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    1. Skeppshult V bike - I saw one in NYC, but it was getting dark and my picture did not come out. It was parked on the street, so no way to try it unfortunately. But I have to say, it was not a small bicycle. Larger than either of the ones shown here.

      You know that Soma introduced a small wheel bike, right? But it is a diamond frame roadbike, so not exactly a shopper.

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    2. I rode that little Soma - fantastic fun but it's more akin to a standard road bike with little wheels than a shopper. The geo wasn't conducive to mounting a rack.

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    3. interesting about the size. Very limited choice for these type of bikes here (melbourne) afaik. Apart from the Raleigh 20 which is fairly common it seems.

      I'm aware of the Soma and like it (and a lot of their bikes) but I'm looking for hub gears & brakes, step through, swept bars, etc. And front frame mounted basket or crate - perfect for dumping a bag in and riding to the station.

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    4. Jim - So under what circumstances could you envision someone buying the mini-Soma instead of a full sized roadbike? It is cute, but I am unsure about its purpose and their product description is not convincing. A city bike with drop bars and no provisions for carrying stuff? I just don't see it. I suppose the wheels would take up less room for travel, so it would work as a travel bike.

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    5. Apparently they are "big in Japan" so I could see Tokyo hipsters living in their parent's broom closet getting folding pedals and sliding it under their bed. As you know lot of people don't mind backpacks so that minimizes the bike's footprint, if you will. So it can be a sporty bike.

      If you pick it up and move it around it does seem significantly smaller and handleable, but in actuality comparing it to a normal-wheelbased road bike it isn't that much shorter.

      One of the shop guys caught me wheelying the thing a couple of blocks from the store; that it does a little too well.

      The bike as sold by Soma has their own levers which are extremely nice I think. It does accelerate very well, the frame is quite lively without being harsh, quick to turn but not nervous. I guess it feels like a hybrid bmx/road bike. Nice for hooligan stuff.

      I forget what the brazeons look like but the horizontal distance from the seatstay bridge to the rear axle is pretty short, necessitating a very short rack, if it were mountable.

      Of course if you stretched out the frame a bit and modded the geo it could go Shopper.

      "Hey, that's a good ideer GRJ!"

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  4. Small-wheeled bikes are an excellent design for load-carrying--they let you place the load lower on the bike, which always makes handling easier. The frame-mounted front rack likewise--with that you can carry more weight with less effort. My friend James Black recently designed and had built a 20-inch-wheeled cargo bike--here's the story--and I have a tentative design for one myself.

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  5. the picture of the Wren made me instantly covetous and I imagined myself cruising breezily around the neighborhood picking up my daily supplies and going off to work in good dress clothes. But, in reality I have a great commuter bike and a Strida when I need something compact, so I don't really NEED a shopper.

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  6. In theory I like Shoppers a lot but they'd have to be designed correctly to handle well whether unladen, with front load only, back load only or both. Seems like a Brompton does these well (cough, cough).

    Sorry, but the Wren looks like it wouldn't work at all - the sta is so slack it puts the saddle directly above the rear axle. Without a front load I'd be you could wheelie it by farting.

    The Bobbin looks much better laid out in this respect.

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  7. That Bobbin is a near dead ringer for the 1970 Raleigh Shopper that I'm restoring. I bought it for $60 on ebay. M wife thought I was crazy when it arrived. But I saw the potential beneath the rust. I overhauled the Sturmey-Archer AW hub, the front Dynohub now generates electricity and other improvements are on the way. Check out the Raleigh Twenty website, www.raleightwenty.webs.com, for a comprehensive look at this cult bike.

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  8. also I find interesting the relationship with the cycle truck design... what effect does the larger rear wheel have? is the front end designed the same? what makes a shopper a shopper and a truck a truck??

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    1. The cycle truck is a full sized bike that has a smaller front wheel. It is a much larger, much heavier bike than a shopper.

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  9. I have a 20" wheeled demountable bike made by Rick Hunter. He's 6'6" and rode it a bit before he sold it to me - 6'3" - and I commuted on it for two years.

    It's sitting in a duffle bag in my garage right now awaiting an adventure.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/56224279@N00/sets/72157627912087443/

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    1. "Of course if you stretched out the frame a bit and modded the geo it could go Shopper."

      Yeah that's what I'm talkin bout.

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  10. Oh, I had a Raleigh Twenty growing up. I felt it was an even-tempered ride with a little hint of pluckiness :-) I think this style of bike has been underated in the ensuing years. I'd love to see more than the folders become popular again (probably just a case of nostalgia), sigh!

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    1. I'm with you BB, I love those old shoppers and folders. If you are after nostaligia, I have a whole blog dedicated to them. Little Bike Blog

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  11. There are many small wheeled shoppers, this one is mine: Tough AND Furious

    It was originally built as a joke for Mini-Bike Winter (hence 18" wheels) in Portland last year and then I just kept riding it until the cranks were bent on several axes, the bottom bracket cups cracked, and the bearings fell out. Then I rode it some more until I got the replacement crankset off a barbie kid's bike :)

    I've been meaning to build a new one based on an adult BMX frame with 20" wheels, at a higher quality level now that I know I like this kind of thing.

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  12. I have to admit, there is something really cute and practical about these bikes. They'd be perfect, as you said, for city or apartment dwellers. I follow http://littlebikeblog.com/ because it's all about these little wheeled things.

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  13. This is awesome. I knew there were non-folding bikes with full-size wheels, and folding bikes with small wheels. I have a folding bicycle with full-size wheels, and these small-wheeled non-folders complete the picture. So it is a full mix-and match with frames and wheels.

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  14. hi, where are each of these made, and would you mind listing country of origin as a matter of routine on bike reviews? thanks.

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    1. I try, but the information is not always available. I am waiting for a reply from both Bobbin and Wren, and will update this info when I get it.

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    2. Got the info from both manufacturers now. The frames for both bikes are made in Taiwan. I have added this to the post now.

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  15. With the Wren costing the same as a Brompton, why in the world would one not choose a Brompton with its marvelous folding features? Shoppers are a nice idea, but the Wren strikes me as overpriced.

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    1. I think you are missing the point of the non-folder. Not everyone needs the folding capabilities of a Brompton. In fact some would prefer if the bike did not fold, so that they are not obliged to carry it everywhere with them but can lock it up on the street instead. That is why one would choose a Wren. It is also impossible to get handlebars with the Wren's sweep on a folding bike, as they would interfere. A bike's price has nothing to do with whether it folds or not. If you look at the Wren's frame, components and accessories in person, the price point makes sense. Both it and the Bobbin are fairly priced.

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    2. You can lock a Brompton on the street just as easily as any other bike- just because it can fold doesn't mean you're "obliged" to carry it around everywhere.

      I think the Wren is beautiful and was thinking of recommending it to my mom, who is in the market, but I was struck by the same thought as Leon. Maybe it's the inherent bias of the proud Brompton owner, but I don't quite understand why you wouldn't want a bike with similar features at the same price that can also be folded up if need be. And if you're an apartment dweller with little space for a bike, as I am, the Brompton obviously has a huge edge in terms of easy storage.

      Maybe the front rack of the Wren can handle more weight than the Brompton front carrier block? I suppose the hub brakes might also be a selling point...

      On an only slightly related note, I wish someone would make a beautiful wicker basket like that for the Brompton.

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    3. At the risk of making this into a gender issue... In my experience many female folding bike owners do not use the fold feature and get the bike just because it's small; many would prefer not to have the fold. It introduces complexity, potential for malfunctions and breakage, and other issues that they do not want to deal with. A bike like the Wren could be for them.

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    4. So...the entire small wheel category of bikes invites masculinity/gender comparisons but any neurosis of potential owners, male or female, of potential "failing" is a red herring.

      Bromptons are so well engineered this isn't even in question. Now if it really bothers someone all the little hinges can be fixed to provide more psychological security, making it a rigid bike.

      I've spoken with a couple of Brompton riders who never fold them so they are de facto shoppers. As I said earlier better to have a fully thought-out platform for carrying things than not.

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    5. With regard to handlebars with sweep on a folding bike--I ride a BikeFriday tikit that I've fitted with albatross bars. So, not impossible to do, though might be on a Brompton.

      Love the blog!

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    6. I dunno. The Brompton is a superb design that carries cargo terrifically. That said, I can see how those who never fold would prefer the simplicity of a shopper frame over the complexity of a folder.

      Either way, small wheels are the way to go to a nimble cargo hauler.

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    7. It is probably pertinent to this discussion to disclose that I have recently become a part of a 2-Brompton household. I love the Brompton, my husband loves the Brompton. I've sold nearly all of my upright bikes recently thanks to this acquisition. And I do use the fold feature, though the husband enjoys that aspect far more than I do. Still, I do see a place in the market for bicycles like the Wren and the Bobbin Shopper and the D2R Boogie I reviewed earlier, for all the reasons stated earlier. Both the folding and the non-folding designs have their benefits in my view.

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    8. Finally!

      Yeah if there is a place in the market for all of these...if the market is big enough. Some of these will die and some may succeed. The good stuff endures - Brompton.


      From a design functionality standpoint
      a revealing and interesting experiment would be to load all these shoppers with, y'know, shopping and see which one performs best.

      Of course there is the "oh it's so cute crowd" whose minds might change over time but hey it's their lives.

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    9. Wait. You aren't serious. Are you?? Is that why you were selling the Gazelle?

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    10. I am serious : )
      Will write about all of this soon.

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    11. Nobody let Velouria test ride a recumbent. I just couldn't take it...

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  16. I have a question about the whole "ideal for apartment dwellers": Apart from the fact that the bikes look small, are they really that much smaller than a full-sized bicycle? In terms of length, the Wren is 155cm long. Compare that with a 54cm Cross-Check: 101cm wheelbase plus 62 for the wheels plus another say 8 for the tires, totaling 171cm. So you save about 15 cm -- does that really make a practically significant difference for anyone? (And it would be less than 15cm when compared to a bike with 559 wheels.) For the height the difference should be even smaller, unless you mess with the saddle and handlebar height each time you bring it into the apartment. Maybe I'm missing something but I don't see a good case for buying a small wheeled non-folder for reasons of storability. Which of course doesn't mean that there aren't other good reasons to like the bike.

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    1. As someone who is frequently exposed to Surly Cross Checks (both my husband and a friend own them), I would say yes the Wren is easier to carry and overall a much smaller bike. It's not just about the wheelbase, but the whole thing after all, the experience of wielding it around.

      But moreover the person I am advising to look at the small wheeled shoppers wouldn't be choosing between the Wren and Surly Cross Check, they would be choosing between the Wren and something like the Gazelle. Huge difference.

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    2. Okay, I shouldn't have chosen the CC to make the comparison. I just did that because I had convenient access to its geometry data (and happen to own one). If you compare it with, say, a Civia Loring which probably shares a similar target audience to the Wren and Bobbin you still get similar values: 106 cm wheelbase, 56 for the rims, 10 for the tires = 172 cm total.

      Compared to Omafiets, on the other hand, I can easily see the benefits.

      Do you happen to know how much exactly the two bikes weigh (this is a department where the otherwise nice Civia does not exactly excel...)?

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    3. I am trying to get the weight info from the manufacturers and will update if/when I have it.

      But all said and done, this is one of those things where an academic discussion is just not the same as the actual experience. If I lived in a 2nd+ story walk up in a city where leaving bikes on the street overnight was not an option, there is no way I'd be riding a full sized bike for transportation.

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    4. Got the weight info: Each bike weighs around 30lb. I have added this info to the post now.

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  17. Cute and practical. If I had to lug my Breezer up some steps I think there would be one of these small guys in my life. What a great option.

    A clip which joyously advocates cycling for all ages, mostly shot in Amsterdam with full sized models, “why cycle!: or "go ride a bike” : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ou1AvKDicxA

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  18. Christopher FotosMay 2, 2012 at 4:52 PM

    I love the Brompton... I've sold nearly all of my upright bikes recently thanks to this acquisition.

    With this bike and dressed to the part, the Mary Poppins effect should be strong enough to disrupt the local gravitational field.

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  19. I am very pleased with my 2011 Cannondale Hooligan 8. It's used daily/nightly for commute, 3 miles each way, and occasional "...oh, and pick something up from the store on your way home." I only paid US$ 519 for it and with US$ 200 compulsive upgrades (mostly the Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires and the Banjo Brothers Waterproof Saddlebag),it's become a workhorse that is still nimble and fun for short to medium rides and not the least bit hoitytoity and the whole tres chic thing. Fits in my office, fits through the corridors, and fits in the conference room we took over from the stacks of obsolete computers. The frame is aluminum, the bike is magnetic--gets lots of interest.

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  20. I just saw this post after being away from the computer for a few days. Coincidentally I've been living in Raleigh Twenty world for the last few weeks. I've got a vintage 1969 Folding Twenty and have been messing around with it a bit this spring. When you ride something like that around it brings others out of hiding. A number of people in town have them but I've never see them in spite of knowing all about the bikes their owners usually ride.

    I made a set of racks for mine that are sort of similar to the ones on the Wren (with a couple of goofy flourishes) and now I have to build similar ones for 2 bikes here in town. I wonder how many of these old things are still out there looking for work? The owner of one of them used it for years for shopping till the alloy rack broke and parked it 3 jobs and a husband ago. Now it looks like it will come out of retirement and be a productive citizen again.

    There's something very friendly and practical about this type of bike and people who are open to looking and doing something a little out of the ordinary seem to find them to be pleasant company. I really like mine and am trying to resist the urge to make a fast Hot-Rod out of it. Would seven speeds and linear pull brakes turn it into a better bike or just a faster bike? I have an old brass squeeze horn from a 1929 Whippet that I'm tempted to put on it. It weighs 9 pounds and is louder than a saxophone so maybe I'll just install that and leave the rest alone...

    Spindizzy

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  21. I personally love this style of bike! I am about to move into a tiny apartment in Chicago and will also be giving up my car. I had been considering getting a 20" wheel folding bike for a really long time, but I feel like to get a decent folding bike with fenders, rack, etc. you have to pay a lot of money just for those feature and the added folding mechanism. So now I'm really looking into the Bobbin Shopper. Still compact and easy to lift/stow but can also carry a load of stuff.

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  22. Hi Velouria,

    I love the wren bike! What would you recommend for generator lighting? Is it possible to get a drum/dynamo hub for the front wheel? Also, would you need a dress guard for one of these tiny wheeled bikes? Or what about a chainguard? The new components are looking tempting as I live in Seattle and ride a vintage bicycle.

    Thank you!

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  23. Hi!! Have my heart set to buy a Shopper, but would love to get a feedback on how it behaves uphill? Currently living in Oslo - where it's not all that flat, thus quite affraid of a 3 gear bike!
    Looking forward to your feedback! :)

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  24. I missed this post originally, but should have known that you would be a fan of small-wheelers, given your affection for the Brompton. A new thread popped up on Bikeforums that I thought you'd be interested in:

    http://www.bikeforums.net/showthread.php/842533-The-Mini-Velo-Reference-Thread-discussion-about-20-quot-wheeled-road-bikes?highlight=mini+velo

    As a walk-up dweller, I have to think about these things! Have you seen or ridden the Mercier Nano? I'd be interested to hear your impressions of that compared to your Brompton.

    As always, thanks for doing such a stellar blog.

    Rudy

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