Friday, September 28, 2012

Spectator Sport

Cross Vegas
"So I hear you are into cyclocross," said Martina from Clever Cycles as we chatted on the second day of Interbike. I responded with genuine amazement. "Me, into cyclocross? What makes you say that?" And then I remembered that I'd spent the previous evening live-posting a continuous stream of blurry snapshots from Cross Vegas - "the biggest cyclocross race in America." I gave up two other industry events to attend this thing. I guess it did seem like I was pretty into it! But as I was quick to explain, I am only interested in watching, not racing. In fact, of all the forms of cycling out there, cyclocross is the one I am least likely to actually take part in (it combines every aspect of cycling I am terrible at!). Moreover, I had never before been able to tolerate - let alone enjoy - watching sports of any kind. So what makes cyclocross so appealing?

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Head to Toe

It struck me that there seemed to be at least as much focus on clothing and accessories at Interbike this year than on bicycles and components. Not that I am against cycling clothing. I support the idea of looking nice and being comfortable on the bike. That said, I felt that for all of its variety, most of the clothing exhibited was deeply unsatisfactory. Put simply: too much embellishment, not enough substance. While I obviously appreciate aesthetics, I wish there had been a greater focus on construction, fabrics and other meaningful aspects of garment and footwear design. Still I'd like to mention some tidbits from the show that I found noteworthy, interesting, or funny.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Gunnar Bikes: the Accessible Waterford

Waterford Head Tubes
Given the references to Waterford in a recent post, as well as the company's presence at Interbike (that's a briefcase full of head tube samples in the picture above), I wanted to bring readers' attention to a line of bicycles that I think is mighty nice: Gunnar Bikes. Made in Wisconsin, USA in the factory of Waterford Precision Cycles, Gunnar is the simpler, budget-conscious offspring of the famous custom manufacturer - named after a beloved pet dog.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Long Tail Tales

While I neither own a cargo bike nor intend to own one any time soon, I love the the idea of them and like to live vicariously through those who have them by asking about their experiences. The cargo bike owners/shoppers I talk to are mostly North Americans and I notice that overall they are opting for long-tail bicycles over front-load box bikes. In large part this is because these cyclists tend to live in hilly, bike-unfriendly suburbs that do not lend themselves to the comfortable but unwieldy box bikes. Long-tails, on the other hand, are said to handle with the maneuverability and responsiveness of regular bikes, while allowing room for extra cargo in the extended rear. At Interbike this year there were long tails from all manner of manufacturers, roughly half of them, it seemed, touting electric assist. But rather than feature every random concoction, I will focus on some trusted manufacturers that have come out with updates and new designs.

Yuba Boda Cargo Cruiser
Yuba had its new "midtail cruiser" on display, the Boda Boda. Named after African bicycle taxis, this model was created in response to requests for a slightly shorter wheelbase and a lower stepover. Featuring 26" wheels, fat tires, swept-back handlebars and derailleur gearing, the aluminum-frame bike weighs 35lbs, is rated to carry over 200lb, and retails for $1,000.

Yuba Boda Cargo Cruiser
The Boda Boda is described as comfortable, in that it "rides like a European townie bike – upright and casual," yet "will get you there and back, even in hilly San Francisco." Studying this bike I admit skepticism regarding that last part, but I am willing to keep an open mind and will gladly test ride a Boda Boda if the opportunity presents itself. As I stood next to the bike, a couple of women came along and talked at length about how delighted they were with the lower step-over; the bike looked friendlier and more accessible, they said.

Yuba Mundo
The original Mundo model was on display as well, fitted with Yuba's frame-mounted Bread Platform front rack (rated for 40-50lb). Though I rode a Yuba Mundo a couple of years ago, the short ride did not leave me with an impression I can now recollect, so I would like to try again. Owners overall seem very pleased with this bike and describe the handling as speedy.

Yuba Mundo with Full-Size Suitcase and Rok Straps
Between the Mundo, the Boda Boda and the various accessories available with the bikes, Yuba offers a range of choices at comparatively reasonable prices. I loved seeing this enormous suitcase strapped to the side of a Mundo with the help of Rok Straps. Who says you have to compromise on luggage when traveling by bike?

Xtracycle with Side Car
Xtracycle, the company that originally introduced the long tail concept, exhibited a range of bikes and accessories that practically turned their booth into theme park. Xtracycle makes two main categories of products: the Free Radical, which is a bike extender kit that can turn almost any normal bike into a long tail, and the Radish, which is its own line of integrated longtail bikes. The big news at Interbike was that Xtracycle will now be releasing a new bicycle model to supplement the Radish line - the EdgeRunner. This bike will have a mixte-ish, unisex frame and you can see most of it up there on the shelf in bright blue. Unfortunately, I dropped the ball on this one and have no decent pictures that show the entire bike. Mea culpa, and I hope you can imagine the last, long tail bit of it...

Xtracycle with Side Car
...which looks just like this. This is a taupe version of the same model, and yes I only have pictures of the rear! What you see attached to the bike is Xtracycle's new folding side car accessory. 

Xtracycle with Side Car
The cargo platform is fairly light, easy to install (onto an existing Xtracycle system), is rated to carry 200lbs of weight, and folds up when not in use. It looks very cool, though I do wonder how the bike handles on turns with the sidecar addition. Unlike most sidecars, this one pivots - but I imagine not so much when loaded with 200lb.

Xtracycle with Rear Box
There were other prototype add-ons on display, like this slatted rear box that can be used for both cargo and small passenger transport. And yes, this is yet another incomplete shot of the new Xtracycles bike - this time in a gunmetal finish.

Xtracycle Radish
Also on display was a spruced up step-through Radish (there used to also be a diamond frame version, but I think they've done away with it?), in a new sunflower-yellow colour with matching stem. The steel Xtracyces are heavier that the Yuba bikes (40lb for the Radish), but are rated to carry more weight (350lb).

Xtracycle Radish
This yellow Radish was fitted with a prototype Party Deck platform that includes built-in speakers and a beer keg stand.

Xtracycle Radish
It's funny to observe how aesthetics can affect a bike's curb appeal. The yellow Radish is much more striking than the original beige/brown version and people flocked to it. 

Xtracycle Radish
Visitors took turns hopping in the saddle, and I confess to riding it down the back hallway until a security guard gave me a look. I'd been wanting to try a Radish for some time, but the local bike shops do not carry them - so I talked to the Xtracycle fellows and they'll try to work something out. Based on my brief exposure to it, I really like this bike and would love to try it out on the road. Maybe even with a sidecar...

Tern Xtracycle Cargo Joe
But the pièce de résistance of the long tail displays at Interbike was the collaboration between Xtracycles and Tern. Yes, that is a folding long tail you are looking at: the Tern Joe with an Xtracycle Free Radical rear extension. And yes, I rode it very briefly - but I can't really get a sense of a bike like this within the confines of a trade show. I am hoping a proper test ride will be possible in the near future.

Tern Xtracycle Cargo Joe
The result of the Xtracycles and Tern collaboration is the Cargo Joe: a 26" wheel folding longtail with an aluminum frame, hi-ten steel fork, and derailleur gearing, available in 3 sizes. Here is a blog post from Xtracycles showing it loaded up with a bunch of weight.

Tern Xtracycle Cargo Joe
The simple fold takes about 30 seconds, with the frame unhinging in the middle.

Tern Xtracycle Cargo Joe
The folding bike then rests on the floor via a kickstand-type contraption under the bottom bracket. 

Tern Xtracycle Cargo Joe
The retail price $1,000 for everything shown here, including the waterproof bags. Adding fenders and lights will increase the cost, but even with that taken into account it seems like a great value. As an owner of a Brompton that I often use as a mini-cargo bike, I can attest that having a bike that hauls weight and stows away compactly is invaluable for someone who lives in a small space, eliminating the problem of storing an enormous cargo bike. And while the Cargo Joe's fold is not minuscule, it nonetheless allows for easy storage, as well as for being taken on trains and in cars.  The possibilities are pretty amazing, especially for those who do not own a car. 

Yuba Mundo
As far as overall trends for long tail cargo bikes, the main ones I noticed were lower step-over heights and a move toward greater compactness. If this reflects the nature of the customers who are buying the bikes, my guess is that there has been demand from more women, more apartment dwellers, and more multi-modal commuters. I am excited by the possibilities I am seeing with these bikes, and look forward to following the development of long tail designs in the years ahead.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

New Kids on the City Block

It is always exciting when a new bicycle company appears on the market, and so it was doubly so when two new brands of city bikes were introduced at Interbike this year: the Toronto-based Simcoe and the Detroit-based Shinola.

Shinola Cycles Interbike Display
The Shinola display greeted visitors as they entered the front hall of the show. Above the yellow French-inspired city bike were the intriguing words "built in Detroit." Walking past the display several times, I listened to attendees debate whether this claim could be true. After all, many bicycle manufacturers state that a bike is "built" locally, when what they really mean is assembled. If it were true, however, wouldn't it be wonderful and ironic to bring domestic bike production to a city known for the former glory of its automotive industry. That was the gist of the buzz.

Shinola Cycles
Later I spotted a company representative and spoke to them about the bikes. Some may recognise the Shinola name as a brand of shoe polish from the early 20th century. Recently, the name was resurrected and turned into a lifestyle brand that plans to sell not only bicycles, but also watches, leather goods and notebooks - all made in the US. 

Shinola Watches
In the bike industry that kind of approach does raise some eyebrows. Can a manufacturer be serious about bicycles if it is not their sole focus? Then again, there are those brands that start with bicycles, then expand into bags, clothing and other items. In that sense, the main difference in Shinola's approach is that they intend to do this from the start. 

Shinola Bixby
As for the bicycles themselves, yes the frames will indeed be handbuilt in Detroit. As I understand it, the initial prototypes were built by Ira Ryan and Tony Pereira in Portland, OR, but production models will be made by Waterford. Prototypes of the first bikes - the diamond and step-through Bixby - were on display at Interbike.

Shinola Bixby
There are some handsome details on these steel frames, most notably the biplane fork crown. 

Shinola Bixby
Points of entry for the brake and shifter cables are subtly incorporated into the frame design.

Shinola Bixby Headbadge
The copper headbadge is embossed with the bicycle model name.

Shinola Grips
One benefit to the company being involved in the production of other products, is its ability to outfit the bikes with its own accessories - such as these Shinola leather grips. 

Sky Yaeger, Shinola Cycles
To create the Bixby, Shinola recruited designer Sky Yaeger - who has previously worked at Bianchi and Swobo and is credited for bicycle models familiar to many. Reading that she was responsible for the Bianchi Milano design, I realised that the curves of the Bixby remind me of that aesthetic. I wonder how they will handle racks and lighting once the bicycles go into production.

Shinola Bixby
While I can't speak for the ride quality, the finish and components of the Shinolo Bixby bicycles are of a higher caliber than what one will see on a typical city bike in stores today. This, combined with the Detroit-built frames, will make for a high retail price. It remains to be seen whether customers will appreciate the bicycles enough to pay it. 

At the other end of the spectrum, Simcoe's focus is on classic, affordable city bikes. It is the new house brand of the Canadian bicycle distributor Forth Floor. North American retailers have been familiar with Forth Floor for years, as they've been responsible for importing a variety of European city bike brands, including the latest brand to hit North America - Bobbin. The high demand for Bobbin's looks/quality/affordability ratio is in part what inspired them to start their own project. As a distributor, Forth Floor has gained a reputation for being knowledgable, reliable and easy to work with - which makes many optimistic about the success of their manufacturing practice. 

The introductory line of Simcoe bicycles is uncomplicated: traditional diamond and step-through frames made in Taiwan, equipped with swept-back handlebars, fenders, rear racks, chainguards and a choice of 3 or 8 speed gearing options. 

Like the Shinolo frames, Simcoe's are welded, but the forks feature attractive double-plated crowns. It is no secret that I love these crowns; I am pleased to see them become a trend again.  

The models will be available in a small range of colours, both bright and subdued.

The slate gray step-through is probably my favourite.

Complementing Simcoe's new line of bikes, Beacon is developing some basic accessories - most notably these fits-all-racks panniers. 

"Through this ride, freedom..."

These are all simple, been-done-before ideas; nothing radical or new. But retailers are paying attention, because frankly there is demand for more bikes of this category without the hassles and the markups that come with importing from Europe. 

Interacting with the fellows at Forth Floor is a pleasure as usual. I learned that Donny (on the left) has recently taken a framebuilding course with Mike Flanigan and made himself a nice touring frame.

Steve is working on a side project making tiny, affordable LED bike lights (Beacon Bike Lights) that can be zip tied to any part of the bike.

The guys are, first and foremost, cyclists. They love bicycles, all kinds of bicycles, and they communicate a sense of commitment to being in the industry for the long haul. 

How that will translate into the quality, appeal and sustainability of the Simcoe brand remains to be seen, but retailers seem cautiously optimistic. 

Both Simcoe and Shinola represent the North American market increasingly embracing transportation cycling and seeking to establish itself as independent from European culture and European bikes. These brands will be welcome additions to Linus, Public, Urbana, Handsome Cycles, Heritage Bicycles, Brooklyn Cruiser and other American-based companies with a focus on city bikes. I will share information on pricepoints once the figures are available, and will hopefully get a chance to test ride both bikes. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Fun in the Sun at the Outdoor Demo

Outdoor Demo
"It's going to be hot there you know..." warned the fellow next to me as I waited in line to sign the liability waiver. I had arrived in Las Vegas the day before Interbike, and there was still time to make it to the final hours of the Outdoor Demo. While attendees are not permitted to ride the display bicycles at Interbike, the Outdoor Demo provides an opportunity to do just that. Hastily, I attached my wristband and boarded the shuttle that delivered visitors to the remote location.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Risky Business of Attracting Women

Bikes Belong Poster, Interbike
On my way to Interbike registration yesterday, I walked by the Bikes Belong booth as they were setting up their new poster. I snapped a picture, uploaded it to Twitter, and received a flurry of hilarious reactions - ranging from "Where does she keep her keys?" to "Find Cipo and reshoot the scene!" 

Of course this is a reference to Elly Blue's "Is this thing sexist?" bike test. Modeled after the Bechdel Test for women in movies, the bike test asks: 
1. Are women present or represented at all?
2. Are the women presented as active subjects rather than passive objects?, and
3. If the gender were reversed, would the meaning stay more or less unchanged? (Or would the image become hilarious?)
Showing a woman pedaling a bicycle, the poster passes points 1 and 2. Assessing point 3 is trickier. Of course a poster of an identically dressed male would look ridiculous, but that's taking it too literally. What about a young male dressed in tight-tight cutoff shorts, a plaid shirt flapping open in the breeze, and a pained, sexy expression on his strategically unshaven face? I'd consider that the equivalent, in which case the meaning would indeed remain unchanged. So I say the Bikes Belong poster passes.

Still, images of women cycling in dresses and heels seem prone to rubbing us the wrong way. It is hard to describe what brings about the sense of unease, especially for those of us who actually wear dresses and heels on a bike. Often it boils down to subtle things: A coy facial expression, an unnatural posture, a too-conveniently billowing skirt... Point is, from a marketing perspective, images designed to attract women to cycling seem inherently risky. Too sporty or gender-neutral, and they can be read as "there is no place for femininity on the bike." Too feminine and they can be read as gendered, objectifying, or downright pornographic. The line between attracting women and offending them is blurry. 

Felt, New Roadbike Colours
And while the sphere of roadcycling seems far removed from transportational advocacy, the same basic theme arises - see, for instance, Bike Shop Girl's "The Bike Industry Needs More Women Like Liz Hatch". When speaking to Felt Bicycles later in the day, the question of colour and graphics came up as well. When I commented on the dark violet hue of Felt's new women's road model, the representative explained how difficult it is to develop a colour scheme for women's lines of bikes. On the one hand, there is now a great deal of criticism hurled at anything pink, pastel or flowery. On the other hand, gender-neutral colour schemes don't sell as well. Women want something feminine, but not too feminine. They do not want a caricature of "girl bike," but they do want it distinguished from the men's models. I have heard exactly the same thing from the manufacturers of athletic cycling clothing. There is now almost a stigma to producing a women's jersey with any trace of the colour pink or flowers on it. Yet there is demand for feminine styles. Designers have to get a lot more creative these days in coming up with those styles; hitting just the right note is tricky.

LAB, Interbike
Still, I believe the bicycle industry will keep trying. With women referred to as the "indicator species" for the success of transportational cycling and with the push for more women in cycling as a sport, the pressure is coming from all directions. As both manufacturers and activists struggle to figure out how exactly to market to women, we are likely to see some interesting results in the years to come. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Trends I'd Like to See in the Bike Industry

Benjamin Cycles, Berthoud
With Interbike coming up this week, discussions regarding what trends to expect have been coming up. Last year was big for transportation cycling, but where will it go from there? To be honest, I have no idea. At the small but influential New Amsterdam show earlier this year the biggest specific trend I could spot was an increase in casual reflective gear. Hopefully Interbike will surprise us with something more substantial.

Meanwhile, instead of making predictions I thought I'd list some of the things I'd like to see myself. In no particular order...

Transportation bicycles for long distance
Most transportation-specific bicycles on the market today are designed for fairly short trips over easy terrain. But for a huge segment of the population, longer commutes over hilly terrain are more typical. Granted, cycling is not feasible for everyone. But I believe that for many, undertaking a long commute by bike is possible without sacrificing personal style and enjoyment. With that in mind, I would like to see more performance-oriented yet transportation-specific bicycle designs. While road, cyclocross and touring bikes can be adapted for long-distance commuting, it is exactly that: aftermarket adaptation. For every person who goes through the trouble, there are probably 100 who will not bother. A transportation-specific design will both validate the possibility of long distance transportation cycling, and make it easy to actually do it. 

Affordable, quality dynamo lighting packages
The options for bright LED dynamo lights and light-weight, no-drag dynamo hubs have never been better. However, that's the good stuff and it is very expensive. And the inexpensive stuff - particularly what tends to be bundled with typical city bikes - is not great. Consumers complain about the dim halogen headlights, the heavy, lackluster hubs. It would be good to have an affordable middle ground. Bike shops that specialise in fully equipped bicycles tend to agree, and some have taken to modifying stock bikes with upgrades. But to see an across-the-board improvement in quality of bundled lighting packages, the initiative must come from the manufacturers.

Decent cycling trousers
Normally I wear my everyday clothing when riding for transportation and do not feel a need for cycling-specific designs. One exception is trousers. As it stands, I ride mostly in skirts and avoid trousers, because the crotch seams on most of them - particularly jeans - cause me discomfort in the saddle on anything but the shortest rides. Considering the growing selection of cycling-specific trousers on the market, it amazes me that virtually none of them aim to address this issue (which I know others experience!), focusing instead on bells and whistles such as U-lock pockets and reflective tabs. Somehow the idea of a seam-free gusseted crotch either escapes the designers or does not seem important, but I hope to see this feature in future. 

Easy to use mini-pumps
When I talk to women about self-sufficiency on the road, a lot of it comes down to finding the equipment physically difficult to use. This is particularly true of portable bicycle pumps. A few months back I attended a "fix your flat in 5 minutes flat" clinic, and most of the women present admitted they were unable to use the mini-pump they carried with them on the bike - telling stories of roadside frustration, ripped out valves and ruined tubes. In fact there is exactly one mini pump I know of that is agreed to be fairly easy to use, but the complaint is that it's heavy; few are willing to carry it on their pared-down roadbike. It would be great to see manufacturers come up with designs that are both easy to work and lightweight; it would be a game-changer for many.

Road component groups designed for low gearing
For those who prefer low gears on their roadbikes for climbing-intensive riding, it is not easy to achieve a build that is in equal measure modern, lightweight, and perfectly functional. Road component groups tend to be optimised for racing and therefore geared on the high side. Setting up a bike with truly low gears (I am talking sub-1:1 here) usually means resorting to mixing and matching components and brands, switching out chainrings to non-native ones, installing mountain bike derailleurs, sourcing vintage parts, and so on. While I am sure some will disagree, according to my observations and personal experience it is rare that these hybrid drivetrains will function as flawlessly as dedicated component groups where everything is designed to work together. This year SRAM has begun to venture into the low gearing territory with their "WiFli technology" - lightweight road derailleurs designed to accommodate wider cassettes. I can't wait for others to follow suit.

Mainstreaming of 650B
There has been talk about the rising popularity of 650B for years, and I am looking forward to this wheel size finally becoming mainstream and unremarkable for both road-to-trail and transportation bicycles. Increasingly, cyclists are choosing bikes built for 650B wheels: Framebuilders are being asked to make more of them, DIY 650B conversions are all the rage, choices for 650B rims and tires are expanding, and some fringe manufacturers are offering dedicated 650B models. There are benefits to 650B wheels, including wider tires and no toe overlap. But there is also concern about the longevity of the trend, as well as about mainstream bike shops not stocking relevant parts - which could pose problems for those experiencing mechanical issues on long trips. I hope it is only a matter of time before affordable and mainstream manufacturers normalise 650B and put those concerns to rest. 

So that's my wish-list. I don't think anything here is especially radical or too much to hope for. Mostly I am guessing it is a matter of time, but hopefully sooner rather than later. What trends would you like to see in the bicycle industry in the years to come?