Monday, April 8, 2013

Monday Mailbox: City Bike Review Blogs?

Bikeyface, Soma Buena Vista
I receive a lot of questions from readers via email and occasionally dedicate posts to answering them. In an experimental attempt to do this more often, I bring you the first Monday Mailbox! To start, here is a question I get variations of frequently:
Don't get me wrong, because I love your reviews. But can you recommend some other resources that review and compare women's city bikes? I am trying to read as many reviews as I can before making a new purchase, but there doesn't seem to be much out there.
Good point. Despite the growing popularity of city bikes, there are not many sources online (or elsewhere for that matter) that review them in any kind of systematic manner. There are personal blogs where you can find reviews of specific bicycles that the author owns or has test ridden, and these can be tremendously helpful. But one downside to these types of reviews, is that the author often has a limited basis for comparison, and their evaluation of the bike will reflect this.

Although in an entirely different way, the same can apply to mainstream bike publications. City and utility bikes are still just starting to transition from a niche to a more mainstream product, and professional industry reviewers tend to have little prior experience with them. It is common for the reviewer to come from a competitive road or mountain bike background and either attempt to evaluate the city bike on similar terms, or as a novelty.

If the popularity of city bikes continues to grow, things should improve soon enough. In the meantime, here are the few resources I am aware of that specialise in city bike reviews. If you haven't checked them out yet, they are great places to start:

Momentum Mag Online: Vancouver-based Momentum Magazine posts many city bike reviews under their Gear category. Being a magazine dedicated to "living by bike," the writers tend to come from transportation, utility and urban cycling backgrounds. Momentum also posts a lot of comparison reviews - for instance of mixtes and cargo bikes, which can serve as very useful intros to a category of bike.
   Limitations: The reviews tend to be on the brief side and often use stock photos. Also, there does not seem to be a clear separation of reviews where the writer rode the bike, from write-ups that announce or describe a bike with no actual test ride having taken place.

Let's Go Ride a Bike: Highly personal, detailed, and well-illustrated reviews of mainly (but not entirely) women's city bikes - especially Dutch bikes, various step-throughs, and cargo bikes. Between the two of them, the authors of this now 5-year-old blog have owned and test ridden a variety of such bicycles, so they have a good basis of comparison within this category. Their photos and videos show riders' positions and other aspects of the bikes that manufacturers' stock photos miss.
  Limitations: The authors have limited experience with bikes in categories other than what they feature. Also, the list of reviews needs to be updated with the latest additions - you might have to search to get them all.

Bicycle Times: This 3-year-old magazine doesn't focus on city bikes per se. You will find stories about touring, adventure and even performance cycling here. But they do review a lot of city and utility bikes and the writers seem well familiar with this side of cycling. The reviews are detailed, with the bikes test ridden thoroughly before impressions are formed. Original and engaging photography.
   Limitations: The online review section contains reviews of many very different types of bikes and gear, rather than separating them by category. Keep scrolling to find more city bikes.

Ecovelo: While this blog is no longer active, Ecovelo still exists as a photographically-rich resource for those seeking commuter and utility bike reviews based on ownership and test rides. Over the course of the blog, the author's interests spanned from Dutch-style bikes to tourer/commuters, to folding bikes, belt drive bikes and more. The reviews are personal, but diligent and concise. The photography is extremely detailed and inspiring.
   Limitations: No longer updated, so the information will grow increasingly dated.

Bikes for the Rest of Us:  When I was first shopping for a city bike, the Bikes for the Rest of Us blog was like a beacon of light in a sea of performance-oriented bike literature. Online since 2008, BFTROU seeks out and features bikes they deem promising based on manufacturers' descriptions, discussing what they se as the pros and cons of the model's features. There are some test ride-based reviews as well. Generally, they try to stick with bicycles in the budget to moderately priced categories.
   Limitations: The site posts predominantly features and industry announcements, not reviews as such.

Sheldon Brown: the late Sheldon Brown was a bicycle rider, writer, lover, collector and mechanic who had a great many things to say on a great many topics. Even 5 years after his passing, there is still loads of relevant information to be gleaned from his eccentrically organised website on both current and older brands of city and utility bicycles. In particular, if you are looking for information on vintage 3-speeds or 10-speeds, or would like tips on how to convert old roadbikes to city bikes or derailleur bikes to hub (or fixed) gear, his site is a great resource.
   Limitations: Sadly, the site is no longer updated. Also, by contemporary standards, the information is difficult to navigate.

If you feel I have missed any resources that focus on city bike reviews, please let me know. Hopefully over the years this list will grow!

36 comments:

  1. It would not have occurred to me to visit Bicycle Times, thanks for the tip!

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  2. " But one downside to these types of reviews, is that the author often has a limited basis for comparison, and their evaluation of the bike will reflect this.

    Although in an entirely different way, the same can apply to mainstream bike publications. City and utility bikes are still just starting to transition from a niche to a more mainstream product, and industry reviewers tend to have little prior experience with them. It is common for the reviewer to come from a competitive road or mountain bike background and either attempt to evaluate the city bike on similar terms, or as a novelty."

    Yes, no doubt.

    "If the popularity of city bikes continues to grow, things should improve soon enough."

    I doubt it, mostly because reviewers of non-race bikes, which has its own vernacular in order to be widely-understood, specifically city bikes, don't have a translatable language to novice bikers. I've tried for years to get you to describe variations between styles of bikes using your own language to no avail. This isn't a criticism, it's a statement of fact: perceiving differences, weighting those differences against each other, prioritizing each characteristic and documenting them, in addition to developing a translatable vernacular, is a huge task.

    To bottom line it: cheaper city bikes are good enough for most everyone, frames with spring/softness built in are great for beginning cyclists. It's not that important.

    When the cyclist gets more expereienced expectations rise. Or not.

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    Replies
    1. "cheaper city bikes are good enough for most everyone"

      yep...hybrids.

      Delete
    2. It would be nice to have a vernacular or translatable language. When bikes that all speak Cantonese at home try to ventriloquise Lyonnais or Midlands for audience in Boston or SF there will often be gibberish.

      It would be nice to have a national bicycle again. A standard that everyone knew and understood. Even then I'm not so sure that Boston or SF ever understood Chicagoan.

      Delete
    3. Hybrids have very similar parts spec as new city bikes at similar price points.

      Again it's not rocket science - get a bike that appeals emotionally to you by TEST RIDING the ones close to you. Reading about how a city bike rides is like dancing to jazz - you can do it but its friggin weird.

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    4. Jim - I've been thinking about that (your first comment) a lot lately; hold that thought b/c I have another post coming up that will talk about it specifically.

      Anon. et al - Hybrids and city bikes are slightly different animals, and as pointed out above the price points are now similar. Ride a city bike. Ride a hybrid. It's all good.

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    5. Granted, my experience is limited, but I've never ridden a "comfort hybrid" that didn't in some way feel really...strange. I can't even explain it. They just felt wrong.

      Granted, I'm riding a hybrid now that feels good, but it's an old Bridgestone, so maybe it's less hybridy that what came after.

      - nemarra

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  3. While there's obviously heritage value in keeping a version Sheldon's site preserved more-or-less as-is (it has to be one of the biggest and best remaining examples of a hand-rolled Web 1.0 personal website), I can't help thinking that it would be a good project to migrate the content to a modern CMS so that it's more easily navigable. It would also make it easier for the good people at Harris to update those bits of it that need updating.

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  4. Actually, John Allen HAS been updating Sheldon's site, though doing so is beyond any single mortal...

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  5. We review city bikes "systematically" now and then, usually for at least a hundred miles, and more if we can keep them longer. We take our own photos of the actual bike tested, and where it's possible (given size issues), Gina's separate review of same.

    We've covered:

    Public D1
    http://bicyclefixation.com/public_d1.html

    Kronan Classic
    http://bicyclefixation.com/kronan.html

    Gazelle Cabby bakfiets
    http://bicyclefixation.com/gazelle_cabby.html

    Brompton (well I consider it a city bike, and I'm buying one to match the one Gina bought)
    http://bicyclefixation.com/bromptons.html

    Cheers,

    Rick

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  6. Even if it's getting a bit oldish, a little Sheldon on a regular basis helps everything bicycle make more sense, sorta'a like how regular doses of Shakespeare helps with modern life(Calvin and Hobbes works as well).

    Spindizzy

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  7. ahem, any good library has become "difficult to navigate" by contemporary standards...

    sheldon brown, the site, reflects the person's character and life work.
    sheldon brown, the person, reflect what sort of person a dedicated and free spirited thinking cyclist might be. both, thinking and cycling are alive due to the effort required.

    next step: making Mt. Everest peak wheel chair accessible- pls send sms and tweet when you have done so :)

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  8. Loop Frame Love post reviews occasionally.

    new website
    http://www.loopframelove.com

    old website
    http://loopframelove.blogspot.com

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    Replies
    1. Oh my goodness. Thank you, Anna, but we think of ourselves as newbs still, in the "has a limited basis for comparison" category.

      Delete
    2. I enjoy reading your blog, Deborah! Looking forward to more reviews : )

      Delete
  9. "there does not seem to be a clear separation of reviews where the writer rode the bike, from write-ups that announce or describe a bike with no actual test ride having taken place."

    I noticed this too, especially with their reviews of clothing and accessories. Maybe the print version of Momentum is different, but the online reviews leave something to be desired.

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  10. To answer your question, no I don't think you missed anything. Whenever I search for a bike review, I find LGRAB, your reviews, ecovelo and Momentum. Beyond that, it's cut and paste press releases masquerading as reviews. I wish there were more blogs dedicated to reviewing city bikes. Obviously the interest is there. I bet you and LGRAB get lots of hits on those posts :)

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  11. Reviews of all kinds have this limitation: they are time bound. Cameras, cars, bikes, and all. Positive reviews are short-term evaluations that turned out positive. Long-term enough to thoroughly evaluate is not possible.
    Part of the attraction for vintage bikes is that their long-term evaluation is known, inspect-able, and understood. For city bikes this is doubly so, for a good transportation bike is excellent if it serves its rider for decades, not if it get them to the grocery store 5 seconds faster than their old bike. The first is not evaluable for a LONG time, and is susceptible to care, local weather and use, all of which are important disclosures. The second is evaluable in 10 minutes. The economics of testing dictate the second gets preference in the rags. The first is most evaluable anecdotally by long term owners.

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    Replies
    1. "Part of the attraction for vintage bikes is that their long-term evaluation is known, inspect-able, and understood. For city bikes this is doubly so"

      In a bike shop recently I saw a ridiculously pristine looking Raleigh Ladies Sports in the workstand, getting a tune-up. From a distance it looked practically new. I said "Whoa! Is that new old stock?" And they told me no, the customer has been riding it for decades. But she dotes on it, because she can't find a modern city bike anywhere near as good and doubts that she ever will. On closer look, I saw that the frame had many scratches that had been somehow buffed out or wax-filled, replacement grips and levers and some other modifications and signs of age. I have never known such a crowd pleaser as that bike.

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    2. Availability of pristine Raleigh Sports has improved a lot over the past two years in the Chicago-Milwaukee area. Bikes that have been used 100 miles or less and immaculately stored indoors can consistently be had for $200 to $300. Sixties bikes are a little harder to find, have some wear. Myself I'm only interested in '62 or earlier and have found 4 of them the past year. None perfect NOS, all of them low miles with easily resolvable issues.

      The pristine bikes always sell but are hardly snapped up. The older bikes I like are hard to sell even after complete repair. A '62 that has no issues beyond dry-rotted saddle and tires, and cobwebs, will sit unsold a long time until a bike geek like me comes and gets it. Biggest issue for buyers in the city is they would prefer to buy a bike within walking distance. Lots of bikes still get dumpstered for lack of storage or a buyer willing to take the smallest chance on a bike lacking a new-bike warranty.

      Delete
  12. V's *vintage and restoration* and *forums* links are a good start.
    As always you have to evaluate the weight and credibility of what you obtain there. IMHO, I give greatest weight to those most successful owners who have very-Long-term relationships with their bikes, and heed carefully how they did their maintenance and care and use.

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  13. Replies
    1. I considered including them, except I can't seem to find many actual "women's city bike reviews" which the original question was asking about. Anyone know of an easy way to get just their bike reviews to come up, instead of having to scroll through pages of products?

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    2. A recent post on the website of the Dutch Cyclists' Union wondered why we still talk about women's city bikes, when step-throughs and loop frames are used in equal numbers by women and both - in particular - young and old men, the main question being why city bikes would need top tubes at all. It's far easier in stop-and-go traffic and for less flexible legs to ride a loop frame. But then this is Holland.

      Delete
    3. When I was in Tokyo, almost all the city bike were step through also. While many were the mama-chari's with child seats and baskets, many looked like bikes used to commute to the subway stations, presumably by both men and women.

      Angelo Dolce

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  14. I'm as confused today as I was a few years ago as to what exactly is a city bike! I mean, I see so many different types used in my urban area and have had so many conversations with other riders, with varying needs for their bikes, that words like 'hybrid' 'road' 'touring' 'city' seem useless....

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    Replies
    1. I struggle with the terminology as well. Overall I think "utility bikes" comes closest to describing what the concept means to me. Maybe.

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    2. road - bike ridden on the rode, alludes to some race heritage. Old road bikes are like modern touring bikes.

      touring - narrowly, a thing with a longer wheelbase and more attachment points for racks.
      more broadly, anything with wheels.

      hybrid - anything mix-breed. see above.

      mountain - same.

      in an urban setting - all bikes are city bikes.

      within niches, your pals/frenemies on a road/mountain/touring bike doing a pace/single track/tour more specific meanings.

      verbiage only consistent to context.

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    3. Over morning coffee I met an artist. We were talking about paintings and painters. He said something which made sense in reference to a particular painter we both found worthwhile...'they work without making any sense' ... I somehow feel the same about bikes.

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    4. "In an urban setting- all bikes are city bikes." Makes me wonder...

      If you ride to the bikes strengths they all achieve some degree of practicality. Do we adapt to our bike and enjoy the practicality that we can achieve or do we need to find the bike that most closely addresses the needs we happen to be aware of?

      Anyone have any anecdotes about how a bike that seemed to be a poor choice turned out to change our expectations and behavior in a positive way? I'm thinking about this because it seems that sometimes we are reluctant to allow basic, well proven technologies, make our lives better because we assume there must be a way to make it even better, and in the process rob ourselves of the real benefit ... It started with a discussion about clotheslines but maybe bikes are a better way to get a handle on this. Maybe.

      Spindizzy

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  15. I like to read reviews of movies, or novels.....Then I watch the movie, or read the novel, and have a totally different take. Years of riding bikes also suggests that finding what works best for one person does not guarantee it will work for another. Researching a product is good but, even if there's a blogger out there who loves it, the only thing that matters is whether it works for you...Insights are hard earned, finding the perfect bike is hit or miss, adapting to what one has is key. Or so I think....

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  16. This is going to show my age. When I learned to ride I learned on a "fat"tired American bike that belonged to the little girl next door. My first personal bike was a 24" Phillips (English) bike, my younger brother had a 20" version of the same thing. I graduated a few years later to a Raleigh sports 3 speed. We just called them either American or English bikes. We loved them and rode them hard. Then my Dad got me one of the first Cinelli's in the U.S. We called them Ten speeds. There were much fewer choices back then but it was and still is fun. Why did it have to get so complicated with road bikes, mountain bikes,city bikes,Hybrid bikes, cross bikes, and down hill bikes. We certainly are a consumer society and I'm part of it. I wish I could just get the people that come into my shop to just ride the bike they have and enjoy the freedom of riding. sorry bout the rant.
    Emile

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    Replies
    1. I'm old, too, and with you...We're, apparently, obsolete:)

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    2. That was pretty good as a just-ride-the-bike-and-stop-thinking-about-research-and-perceived-potential-enjoyment-rant.

      A Cinelli was non plus ultra race bike back then, btw. That makes it a road bike.

      The youth must differentiate themselves from each other with specialization. Though they look the same to us they are very, very different from each other. <=mild sarcasm, no worries.

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    3. Frankly, a fat tire Worksman bicycle (at least in the more flat urban areas) would fit the City Bike bill quite well. Inexpensive, durable, comfortable to ride.

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  17. I've been investigating a solid, not-to-pricey commuter bike (10 mile OW on a pretty flat bike trail) and just typed questions of that nature into google.

    It spit out bike forums like this:
    http://www.bikeforums.net/archive/index.php/t-758154.html
    They seem to be more first person, experiences rather than reviews that only praise but don't offer much criticism.

    Reading through people's Q&A also taught me more about bikes in general & I feel just a wee bit smarter for having read those threads.

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