Wednesday, March 19, 2014

It's a Beater

In cyclist jargon, to refer to a bike as a "beater" is to describe a machine that is so weathered, so cheap, so ugly - or, ideally, so all three of these things - that you do not care about wrecking it. Sure you might have your nice bike. But it's the beater you leave out in the rain for days, ride on heavily salted roads,  lock up outside bars in dodgy neighbourhoods, and generally subject to all manner of abuse. Because who cares - it's a beater. On this concept a Canadian company has based an entire line of city bicycles, named …drumroll… Beater Bikes. For $350 a pop you get a single speed roadster, either diamond frame or step-through, equipped with a surprising amount of commuter accessories.

But what sort of creature is this Beater, with its hammer-head tulip headbadge and krylonesque paint job? The Bicycle Belle in Boston carried them briefly, which gave me a chance to try one. And you know what? By golly, I liked it. The Beater is not without faults, but as far as "budget bikes" go, it seems hard to beat (heh) and has now replaced the KHS Green as my favourite bike of that category.

As far as the basics, the welded frames and forks (described as simply "steel") come in one size only (53cm for the diamond frame and 45cm for the step-through) and one colour - matte racing green. The loop design of the step-through is attractive, in a subdued industrial sort of way, with nice even curvature, clean welds and a unicrown fork that blends in well with the frame. Aesthetically, the bike looks simultaneously classic and modern, with a subtle dystopian undercurrent to it. The all-black components (rims, crankset, stem, seat post, handlebars) complement the matte green frame finish and, combined with the iconography of the headbadge, give off a futuristic and vaguely sinister vibe. Not in a bad way. It's an interesting juxtaposition, with the bike being so vintagey in concept. Loop frames can come across as too cutesy, but the Beater does not suffer from that. The complete bike weighs under 30lb, which is pretty good for an all-equipped city commuter of this style. In addition to the single speed, a 3-speed version is available for an extra $100.

On the step-through model, the headtube is extended past the seat tube considerably, and the stem is extra long to allow for a super-upright posture. For someone of my height (just under 5'7") or taller it is also possible to adjust the fit so that handlebars and saddle are level, for a sportier position.

I like the proportions of this bicycle. It is compact compared to a genuine Dutch bike, but the "cockpit" does not feel cramped. And as far as the Beater's ride, I thought it a very normal-feeling, unremarkable (in a good way), stable bike that beginners would feel comfortable on, but experienced cyclists would not find limiting - as long as they don't expect performance beyond the city-bike category. The ride quality is not as plush as that of some others I've ridden, but it's not harsh and is better than I would expect at this price point. The bottom bracket is not too high, so it is possible to put a toe down at a stop while remaining in the saddle and still get decent leg extension when pedaling. And for me there is no toe overlap despite the 700C wheels with 38mm tires and fenders.

In addition to the fenders and chainguard, which are colour-matched to the frame,

the Beater comes equipped with a rear rack,

a double-kickstand,

battery operated LED headlight and tail light, a bell, padded vinyl saddle, rubber grips, platform pedals and even a front wheel stabiliser.

What it doesn't come with is a front brake. And therein lies the Beater's tragic flaw: It is coaster brake only. Now, I like coaster brakes as much as the next contrarian, euro-born, skirt-wearing, baguette-toting transport cyclist, and am prepared to debate their merits in my sleep. But even I would not make a bike that's meant to be ridden in North American cities coaster-brake only. I mean, come on, Beater - a pile of accessories but no front brake?.. Anyway. The proprietress of the Bicycle Belle was of the same opinion, which is why she retrofitted her entire stock of Beaters with front calipers before allowing them out the door. The good news is that this can be done aftermarket. The less good news is that it increases the bicycle's cost, thereby diminishing the wow factor of what would otherwise be a perfectly decent and ridable, fully commuter-ready $350 bike.

So, if I might be so bold as to make a suggestion to Beater: Why not nix the front wheel stabiliser (the cheap ones are no-good anyway) and replace the double kickstand with a plain old single one, then use the savings to fit the bikes with front brakes? (And to be honest, if catering to the North American market, a bike with front and rear hand-activated brakes in lieu of coaster would sell better still - but I am not versed on the cost difference that sort of change would entail.)

All things considered, I enjoyed riding the Beater. For the price point, I am impressed with both its design and with the accessories package it comes with. How well will a bike like this hold up in use is a question only an owner can answer - and if you are one of them please feel free to share your experience. Based on my limited impressions, I would recommend the Beater to readers searching for an off-the-shelf city bike for under $500 ...if it weren't for the manufacturer's choice of brake system.

54 comments:

  1. Plan B -- get a drum+dynamo front hub. I hate battery-powered lights because batteries require that I charge them, and I think always-on-while-rolling lights are a good thing. Drum brake works in the rain/ice/snow, gives you the option of a frame rack (otherwise you get cable interference). I know it punches the cost up, but that's what I'd do. I would probably also punt on the double kickstand and defloppilator.

    Next upgrade after that, obviously, is a 3-speed hub.

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    1. Hello,

      We actually have a few prototypes with test pilots currently sporting drum brakes. Could be a possibility in the future.

      d

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    2. Thanks for your feedback David; looking forward to that.

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  2. love the tone of your posts lately, you seem to be in a better mood!

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  3. It's funny since a 350$ bike is by no means a winter beater for canadian weather! You are better off with a 50$ mountain bike off of craigslist.

    This bike is just too pretty :) I'm glad they've come into the market!

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  4. Way too attractive and new to be considered a beater in my lexicon. I will go further: you can't commodify a beater; they are feral machines that appear and disappear with the seasons. I am all for an exploration of what constitutes "basic," and this looks like a sound solution for many, but "beater"? Ugh.

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    1. You had me at "feral machines." Pure poetry.

      If we're to have an academic discussion on the beater concept, I think the crux of the matter is that the manufacturer's definition is flawed. They seem to think of "beater" as synonymous with "old bike" as in vintage 3-speed.

      "we think of a traditional old or second hand beater bike as a noble creature. Just stop anyone on the street riding one and ask. We call ours Beaters out of respect…"

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    2. Thanks! This is where we all come to indulge in said poetry. : ) To me, alas (and I'm trying like mad to avoid the discussion, but here we are), the crux is that branding based on a flawed definition is a big confusing bummer and a shot in the foot. It's a perfectly fine no-frills omafiet that needs a suitable moniker, which I will now resist brainstorming. Calling them beaters out of respect? Oh man, they keep digging the marketing hole deeper. You could throw one of them in that hole, bury it for a while, then dig it up, and still you won't even have a faux beater. A Canuck should know better, honestly. I once knew a guy from the Iron Range of Minnesota whose adopted steed, creaky and way too small, embodied the absolutely shameless utilitarian dreck that is a beater, and it would look at home emerging from the permafrost during the spring thaw. That's respect, but it's not the buy-this-bike kind of respect; it's the respect one reserves for surviving prisoners of war, which it kind of is.

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  5. Beater, in my world, is something CHEAP....A decent used bike that has a couple working gears and is fun to ride and it wouldn't kill me to have to replace it every couple years. Seventy five dollars is what I spent for the last one, which has lasted five seasons so far. Granted, most have more disposable income than I can muster.

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  6. I get that one cable on this is for the front brake, what's the second cable for?

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    1. That other one is a shifter cable; the bike pictured is the 3-speed version.

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  7. I would vote for a practical rather than academic discussion of beater bikes (and where to get them). This is an urgent question for me at the moment, and I am weighing the following features for a beater bike:
    1a) It is inexpensive so if it is stolen it is easy to replace.
    1b) It looks inexpensive so it is less likely to be stolen.
    2a) It is inexpensive so that if it is ruined it is easy to replace.
    2b) It is robust so that it is unlikely to be ruined and can be easily repaired.
    3a) Things I am happy to give up in return for the above features: gears, appearance, coolness, high efficiency.
    3b) Things I am reluctant to give up: good brakes, stable handling, reliability.

    Right now, I am using a 40 year old department store three speed as my beater bike, and I hate it because the brakes are terrible, it pulls to one side, it is hard to steer, and I am afraid it will break down at any moment. The only thing it gets high marks on is point 1a: should it be stolen, I might throw a party at having gotten the space in my garage back.

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    1. I'd say your best bet is a good used mountain bike on C-List. Finding it at 1a/2a pricing should be easy enough. And if it's not 1b enough, you can always "uglify" it aesthetically with bits of duct tape and so on...

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  8. You've entirely missed the point of a beater:

    No upmarket fancy caliper brakes. Get a Linus if you want that.

    This is not a city bike; it's a Canadian beach cruiser.

    It exists at a much lower price point than half a thousand.

    You are supposed to opposite lock the batard whilst e-braking the back.

    You aren't suppose to go fast and if you are you better be able to do the above.

    Having a front brake on this is equivalent to having DSC, traction control, ABS on a giant SUV b/c the driver can't be sensible about the vehicle's capabilities.

    Otherwise having a front brake for those with no leg strength or coordination is a good thing, but I'm sure complaints of hand strength limitations will be coming.



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    1. Not going to get into the braking dynamics. But as far as beach cruiser vs city bike - to the best of my knowledge the manufacturer intended for it to be the latter. As a beach cruiser, sure it is perfect just the way it is.

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    2. Bah it's just nomenclature. Call it a city cruiser.

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    3. YMMV, but to me a "cruiser" denotes a very particular bike design and intended usage (at least in the US.) Obviously the way you use a bike is flexible and the differences aren't major, but I would never call this bike a "cruiser".

      For promenading down a beach path, a coaster is great. But any bike ridden regularly as transport really ought to have a front brake. It just make a huge difference in your ability to stop. Hardly a luxury item. But I don't think it's a bad idea to equip the bike they way they have. You do have to make choices to hit this kind of price point.

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    4. after years of riding my 50lb Australia post bike about town, with only a coaster brake, I really recommend the fine manoeuvring possibilities that the front brake offers.

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    5. then yo purchase one and don't expect it on a 350 bike, ok?

      i want a schmidt e3, tubus rack and campy on all my bikes for 450 - can someone help me?

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  9. Steel frame, steel crank, looks like steel stem/bars, fenders, rack, light...all this weighing in the 26 lb range?? That's hard to believe!

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  10. Hmm. Pretty attractive price point, and it appears that it would be a bit more reliable than your typical Department Store bike, which typically suffer from shifter and brake problems after just a few miles. Hope that front rim has adequate braking surface. Some rims are designed for coaster or disc brakes but not rim brakes.

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    1. The front with aftermarket caliper braked fine in dry weather. Didn't try in the rain.

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  11. Funny that it has finally dethroned the KHS Green from the post of "Queen Of The Low-Dosh Step-Thoughs". I am curious as to what this bike brings that would make you prefer it.

    And yeah, "Beater" does seem a little arch as a brand signifier.
    I disagree with GRJ about the front brake.
    I've seen more than one Masi Soulville with an aftermarket Tektro BMX brake on the fork. Helped my neighbor fit one, as a matter of fact. Just good practice to have one if there are any hills at all. Akin to owning a fire extinguisher.

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    1. Pretty sure you didn't read the last para, nor the cost thing. Please do.

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    2. My comment was a "...yeah, but still..."

      Cost is little for those components. It wasn't intended by the maker to have a front brake from the factory, but has the mounting holes drilled.
      Hey, none of your road bikes came from the builder with a rear rack either, right?

      Maybe I'm missing an inference or two, but I'm fatigued from new-puppy-in-the-house madness. Please to forgive.

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  12. Sorry, but what's a front wheel stabilizer?

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    1. Note that (unless the spring on that one is extraordinarily strong) the only effect you'll notice is to keep the front wheel from flopping
      when you are stopped; I have a home-made one on a cargo bike, it uses a modified rack mount to get a better lever arm on the fork, and has one spring nested inside the other, and I am completely unable to notice that it is there when I am in motion, and it has no perceptible effect on the no-hands characteristics of the bikes. As always, perhaps I am an insensitive clod, your mileage may vary.

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    2. Ah, I've seen these devices on various photos of bikes, and could never figure out what they were. I figured they had to do with wiring from a dynamo.

      Anyway, what does a stabilizer do? Is it supposed to mitigate front wheel wobble at speed? I've never experienced that issue, so it can't be all that common... or is it?

      Are these stabilizers used on only certain types of bikes?

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    3. Andrew, that sort of stabilizer does nothing for front wheel wobble, except perhaps change the frequency a little bit. Might even make it worse. What mine does quite well is prevent the front wheel from flopping stupidly when the bike is parked. This happens more with center stands -- if you have a load in the back, the front can pivot up in the air, then flop.

      There's another kind of stabilizer intended to stop front-end shimmy. I've heard about them, never seen or used one, I think they are somewhat more expensive.

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    4. Truth: Wheel stabilizers are only for keeping the wheel from flopping while stopped. You're not supposed to feel any impact while riding. Cheap ones work fine; but if a bike doesn't have a large front rack, I don't see the point.

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  13. I don't understand beater bikes, period, let alone spending $400 for one.

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  14. "Subtle dystopian undercurrent." Is that the new "edgy"? I like it. That's what I'm going to tell my daughter that the black Cyclepro rigid fork mountain bike that I gave her ($40 on Craigslist) has. Her Dad isn't cheap. He's subtly dystopian.

    It's always a pleasure to read your writing.

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  15. P.S. What self-respecting bagette-toting Euro transport cyclist spells "in lieu of" as "in leu of." Mon deu!

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    1. What! I thought "in leu" was the American spelling :)

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    2. ...and if you're curious about the way I spell bagette, when I was 11 and went to Radio Center, I'm pretty sure I didn't see the Rockuettes. ;)

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    3. Yeah, GR Jim, I know. I was trying to make light of the fact that I had taken someone to task for misspelling a French borrowing...and in the same sentence misspelled another French borrowing.

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  16. It's a cute looking bike, and browsing through your older posts, it looks a lot like the tiny Triumph you posted about a few weeks ago, at least in the pics.

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  17. In urban areas lucky enough to have them, I wonder what impact the bike share industry will have on beater bike sales.

    The last three months Chicago streets have descended into snowy salt Armageddon. With nowhere to keep my bike outside and nowhere to clean it, I was resigned to walking until it occurred to me Chicago's bike share are available year round. In good weather tourist use is so high it is hard to find a bike. But come the cold and muck share racks are always full.

    The bikes are not perfect by any means. They are modestly pleasant to ride. Share racks are well placed and growing in number. Indeed share racks close enough to my home and work that commuting (admittedly have used mass transit more than bikes past few months) is possible. Errands, going out, and pleasure riding are downright easy.

    Share fees can add up to more than beater cost. Subtract maintenance cost, time spent cleaning and the hassle of finding a place to keep your beater and suddenly bike share is a viable for some of us.

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  18. Velouria, I cant see a stabiliser on the pics. A Hebie stabiliser costs circa £12.00 - is this consodered a 'cheap' one and therefore not good? What good stabiliser can you recommend

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  19. Fender Corp. makes a line of guitars & basses they call "Road Worn". They come already beat up for those who want to look like they've been playing on the road for years, without spending all that time doing
    so. Is this a trend?

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    1. not a recent one - "distressed" jeans have been around for years

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    2. Wow, yes that's right!
      Do you think we'll see distressed cars sometime? Maybe SUV's with
      epoxy mud tastefully applied, and decals of cracks in the windows?
      Or are they just too sacred to (fake) despoil?

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    3. I vaguely recall a SNL skit to that effect : )

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  20. Most bikes look like the one pictured, in Holland

    And they can be had for a similar price, maybe a bit cheaper due to economies of scale

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  21. Mostly, if I purchased something like this as a beater bike in my snowy, salty, wintery mix of conditions I'd be pissed if it were to rust out after a couple seasons of outdoor parking and riding and neglect. All that steel and cheap bearings and bearing surfaces usually mean lot's of overhauls and maintenance.

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  22. I am and have long been a big fan of Ashtabula one-piece cranks. So simple to work on. So reliable. The big bearings work well.

    The dinky wire crank on the Beater says penny-pinching to me. Where else are they pinching pennies?
    $350 may be low for a new bike, I would still expect a real crank for that price.

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  23. I bought this bike in January for a Canadian winter. I also added a front caliper brake, mainly because I am too short to mount and dismount without stepping on the pedal.
    This bike hit nearly all of my must-haves: step-through frame, fenders, rack, lighting (though it's cheap battery powered), internal gears and brake, chainguard, etc, and was significantly less expensive than other options (the linus only has caliper brakes, ditto public bikes, and those both cost more at the shop or to ship). I have been trying city bicycles for over two years and had never found one that fit me (I am 5' and particular about reach) until I test rode the Beater. So far, I am very happy with its performance! We'll see how it does in the spring after I clean off all of the salt.

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  24. I get lost in the technical stuff, but I enjoy getting lost in your writing.

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  25. Clark in VancouverMarch 31, 2014 at 2:16 AM

    I hope they get a Vancouver dealer eventually. They'd be a hit out here on the west coast.

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  26. Beater Bikes is having a a warehouse liquidation sale on both the step-through and roadster models.

    $80 for single speed
    $100 for 3-speed
    Add $100 shipping within the US.


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  27. I don't know if you're still checking the comments on this, but I was wondering what aftermarket front brake you were able to install. The hole in the front fork on my Beater is too small for all the caliper brake bolts I've seen, and it's threaded too. Thanks!

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