Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Black and White

Two Very Different Takes on Step-Throughs!
42 centimeters, or nearly 17 inches! Any guesses what that figure refers to? Go on, think about it before I tell you. Anyone? 

Over the past few weeks I've had under my guardianship two step-through bicycles that could not be more different from one another: a vintage Claud Butler Lady Lightweight that belongs to a friend, and a modern Mosi Carolina that was sent to me for review by the manufacturer. The former was essentially designed as a time trial bike (according to 1930s notions of what that entails) with all-arounder capability; the latter as a Dutch-style urban commuter. Switching back and forth between these machines has been an interesting experience - especially considering that 42cm is the difference in their handlebar heights! In fact I don't think I've ever ridden a bicycle that's quite as upright as the Mosi or quite as low-leaning as the Claud Butler. And to think that both of them can be described as step-throughs or "lady's bikes" - evoking a similar image while in reality being so different.

And yet, despite these differences what I found most striking about the two bikes was an attribute they had in common, aside from the low step-over: Both felt absolutely amazing to ride. Amazing in an entirely different way form one another, but amazing nonetheless, with each machine's handling feeling "just right" in the context of what that bike was meant to be. This is something not many people think about unless they are involved with product design or product reviews. But it is a core criterion based on which a product can be judged as successful. 

Recently, I was talking to a Belgian acquaintance who owns a shop selling European utility bikes, and who is also a former amateur road and track racer. In his opinion, if a Dutch-style bike feels "too upright" (and size/weight/fit are eliminated as the culprit), it is because there is a flaw in that model's design. A well-designed bicycle of its kind should feel as if it's supposed to be that upright, evoking an "Ooh, this is very different but very nice" type of reaction from even the roadiest of roadies, as opposed to a request to slam the stem. Similarly, a well designed utility bike of this type should not feel slow-rolling in action; subjectively it should feel as if its speed is just right for how fast you want to go while riding in that position. And he applies the same principle to what they refer to in continental Europe as "sports bikes" - that is, road-racing or touring bikes with drop bars. In theory, even to a rider new to the sporty side of cycling, a well designed roadbike should feel intuitive and safe after a minimal initiation period. If it doesn't, something is off. 

For the most part, I think I agree with this way of putting things. Though my own cycling experience so far is limited to just over 5 years, I've crammed a lot of pedaling time and a great number of bikes into those years. I have ridden bikes that did not feel "just right" to start with and so I'd try to wrangle them into being just right with mixed (usually not entirely successful!) results. I have also been lucky enough to ride bikes that have felt exactly right from the get-go. And the thing is, once you've had that experience you know it's possible. You know that not all bikes of the same category, even if they look similar and are similarly priced, are in fact the same in how well they perform the function they were designed to perform. Whether it is a city bike or a racing bike, or something in another category entirely, when a bike feels just right we tend to know it. Sometimes it really is black and white.

34 comments:

  1. I agree with you 100%. Both bikes are very different, yet each is "just right" for what it's intended to do. Just don't try to do a fast ride on the upright bike, or ride with slow-riding friends on the low-slung Claud Butler. Either won't be fun, because the bike isn't intended to do that.

    To many people think that handlebar height is simply a matter of comfort, rather than of the bike's purpose. Your power output is determined by your riding position, because your upper body works as a counterweight to your legs pushing on the pedals.

    That means that a performance bike with a very upright position won't work well, and neither will a low-speed bike with low handlebars. Everything needs to work together.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Jan Heine said: "To many people think that handlebar height is simply a matter of comfort, rather than of the bike's purpose. Your power output is determined by your riding position, because your upper body works as a counterweight to your legs pushing on the pedals."

      Well put. But I would go further and ask if there is not something in the design of such sit-up-and-beg designs as the pseudo-Gazelle in the post that allows the rider to generate more power while, precisely, sitting bolt upright. Could the very slack st angles affect this? I daresay that no upright bicycle will allow as much pedaling efficiency as a well designed road bike properly set up, but it would certainly be interesting to learn what a competent analysis of the crypto-Gazelle's geometry says about riding efficiency with such a slack seat tube and other design aspects

      Delete
  2. Maybe you could tell us what is just right about them.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Is the Mosi more upright than a Gazelle?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Not inherently. But I never enjoyed riding Gazelles bolt-upright, preferring to lower the bars a tad. To me, this made their front end feel less twitchy and more responsive. The Mosi however, was not twitchy and plenty responsive even in the bolt-upright position.

      Delete
  4. I think it's true that there is something that seems intangible about bikes that are just right vrs bikes that never feel completely right. But it probably can be distilled down ultimately to handling and fit, although those two things are made up of a vast range of possibilities.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Those are two rally interesting and different looking bikes, I like your "feels just right" comment... Tough to quantify but you know it when you ride it...:)

    ReplyDelete
  6. Never been a fan of binary thinking. Though I wish life were that easy I've learned to appreciate gray, especially with respect to bikes but it does not end there!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Right you are. In fact the Mosi bike is more like a cream with a hint of green, and the Claud Butler a deep, deep Payne's Gray.

      Delete
  7. I had a 'Dutch' bike years ago when living in Italy - looked beautiful but horrid to ride, talk about 'huffing and puffing' - never again. I have stayed with mountain bikes ever since - however, as your article indicates, it could well have been the design of that particular bike which was at fault, rather than any fault with that genre of bike. Surely so many people would not ride them if they were all like the one I had :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Interestingly enough, the woman who now owns the Bicycle Belle in Boston had the opposite experience: A year of working in Milan and riding an old Italian city bike led her to ditch road and mountain bikes in preference for utility cycling. After returning to the US, she started the Biking In Heels blog, fell in love with restoring vintage roadsters, bought a big-ass cargo bike, and eventually opened her own city bike shop.

      Delete
    2. Yes, there are many 'cruiser' and 'Dutch' style bikes in my area and the riders appear quite happy - there is no way they would sell if they were all like the tractor I had :(
      I have noticed a few 'urban cruisers' around lately and some are really smart looking bikes; I love the variety there is in bike design - something for everyone.

      Delete
    3. How is her shop doing, by the way? It looked like a nice place to be in your posts about it and I remember thinking that if I were to go back to the bicycle mines again, it would be best to do it someplace like that.

      Spindizzy

      Delete
  8. For the record, I guessed handlebar height!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I guessed appropriate hemline variance.

      Delete
  9. It's heartening to see you are open to a wide variety of cycling positions. Too many manufacturers promote their style of bike by putting down other styles of bikes, I wish someone would tell them it is not necessary.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There is an anti-racing/ anti-sport defensiveness inherent to a lot of utility and leisure bicycle marketing literature that I touched upon in reviewing Grant Petersen's Just Ride. I see it as a reaction to the times when many of these companies were starting out. For most of the last decade, the bicycle was considered a piece of sports equipment and even folks who just wanted to commute or run errands were encouraged to purchase lycra and clipless pedals. The whole "unracing" and "cycle chic" thing were just reactions to that - something to let people know that real alternatives existed. It's a message that seems unnecessary now, but made more sense in say 2009. Either way… from a Marketing 101 standpoint, it is not good to define a product with a negative. Hopefully over time we will see these companies shift to promoting a positive message about their own bikes in a way that does not put others down.

      Delete
    2. The reactions were from bike novices and, no it was unnecessary then as it is now. Insecure is the word.

      Also no to Grant's unracing thing - he's been on that since Bstone, however the term was not coined yet.

      Both Grant and Jan have done well marketing negatively, call it Marketing 201.

      Delete
    3. I see Grant and Jan marketing positivity by saying here is a solution to your innability to be comfortable "just riding along." It isn't really negative to give solutions to the non racing crowd and then explain why they are solutions and how exaclty they are different than lbs competition.

      I have three bike shops within what I consider driving distance from me, none cater to the non racing type of rider. I do believe the message is still necessary now, especially to people who haven't been "into" biking for years.

      Delete
    4. "The reactions were from bike novices and, no it was unnecessary then as it is now. Insecure is the word. "

      I'd have to agree with this. I learned to ride a bike in 2009 and never felt like I had to wear lycra or use clipless pedals. I knew the lycra-wearing folks were out there, but I never felt like I had to be one of them to ride a bike. The assumption that women were being kept off bikes because they felt like they had to dress a particular way always struck me as...bizarre. Maybe I was just lucky to have lived in places where there were a lot of college students getting around on regular bikes in regular clothes and not making a big deal about it.

      Delete
    5. "Maybe I was just lucky to have lived in places where there were a lot of college students getting around on regular bikes in regular clothes and not making a big deal about it."

      All the OG bike pretty people are now driving cars.

      Delete
    6. "Also no to Grants un-racing thing"... I hear you, it can just sound like fatuous validation of niche marketing, but, there is a metric crappe tonne of boring old race bikes from the Mountain Bike wars of the 80's and 90's, but when you stumble upon one of Brother Petersons Bridgestones of the era, you find bikes that are still great bikes that make you want to ride the hell out of them, buy nice tires for them and park them inside instead of just hanging them on the shop wall and trying to remember why you spent all that money for the nasty pink thing way back when...

      Spindizzy

      Note the absolute lack of anything like a period in that big ass long sentence... Sort of a minimalist prose thing I'm into these days, not wasting a SINGLE period... You people have no IDEA how smart I think I am...

      Delete
  10. Without any adjustment to the machine I ride my DL-1 either bolt upright or flat back aero. Handlebars about 2 inches above saddle. Just a matter of how you approach the bike and the ride.

    There are enough Dutch style bikes around here to make some observations on how they are ridden. There is a small contingent who sit serene and stately. There is a larger contingent who just ride along as if it makes no difference what bike they are on. The largest group with the high bars are barely in control of the bike. The high hand position makes it look like they are about to scream "Oh noes!" and cover their face as they proceed down the road in terror. The 'just right' feeling is in the rider as much as it is in the machine.

    The Claud has the stem about level with the saddle and looks completely normal, at least to me. If it seems so very low to you perhaps it is because you are not able to ride the tops. Most of us can and do ride the tops. The need for an antique headclip stem limits the possibility of raising the bars but there are certainly many handlebars available that would be suitable to the Claud and have less drop.

    ReplyDelete
  11. It has been 40 years since I put any significant miles on a bike designed for a sit-up-and-beg position, though in my boyhood I did put thousands of miles on Indian roadsters, these miles including longer, 40-60 mile rides at an energetic pace in hilly terrain. I've long wondered about the design of such roadsters: what ergonomic principles determined their angles, tube lengths, and gearing? Are these things just remnants from a time when designers were ignorant?

    The longevity of the Pashley-type roadster and the Dutch city bike leads me to believe that this is not a sufficient explanation, and therefore I've long wished someone would do a design analysis for such utility bikes comparable to those done for more "sporty" bikes.

    One very noticeable character of the Gazelle copy in the photo is the hugely slack seat tube angle. Being myself very sensitive to saddle setback -- I can't get power on a “racing” bike unless I am well behind the bb, KOPS be damned; and unless my back is sufficiently inclined -- I wonder if the, or at least one, secret to the usefulness of such designs -- upright position, short top tube, bars so close to the saddle that they hit your thighs in a tight turn, huge gearing -- is a very slack seat tube that puts the saddle behind the bottom bracket and allows sufficient torque even when sitting bolt upright.

    I'd be interested in hearing others' comments on this.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The other reason the bars hit your thighs is that they are very narrow bars. The Indian bikes I've known have bars even narrower than aged Raleighs.

      The huge gears come from the same place as the very large 24" default frame size. The original DL-1 was made for sporting gentlemen from the upper classes. When cycling spread beyond the moneyed leisure class marketing tried to hang onto the upper crust cachet as long as possible. 24" frame because the well-off are always taller than the general population. Stiff upper lip explains the huge gear. Gentlemen used the same gear as racers of the era (48x18) and you couldn't tell them to gear down. Same deal as current riders who trundle around in 53x11 because it's racy and after spending the big bucks they don't listen to plebes. Slack angles do make it a lot easier to get the bike moving in the big gear.

      KOPS is pretty meaningless if you're not a young racer. Racing bikes are not made for people your age or mine. After years of trying to get my saddle back further with SR MTE-100 posts (and sillier expedients) I got a 'fast' bike built in 1963 with a 71 degree sta. It works much better than trying to modify current production steep bikes. Easier and much cheaper than getting a custom or trying to talk a framebuilder into something he basically doesn't want to do. 71sta sounds crazy to those conditioned by the current market. Get unconditioned. Tony Rominger did his 1994 hour record on a steel Colnago with 71sta and 55 kilometers in an hour is pretty fast.

      When I first rode my Indian-built DL-1 it was nearly unrideable. I've modified it more than most would. It is still unmistakeably a DL-1. After 10 years it has become a good friend. Most all around useful bike I've ever had. It was $20 FOB New Delhi and I think of it in the same terms as my '73 Cinelli SC or the '63 Rickert. I usually have at least one vintage English sports type 3spd around, I always reach for the DL-1.



      Delete
    2. "Are these things just remnants from a time when designers were ignorant?" I doubt it, although I suppose there have always been horrible BSOs, (what would the equivalent of a 19th century Wal-Mart have been?) Designers and Creators are usually a sharp, open-eyed bunch that tend to master the basics pretty quickly in any field where there's a living to be made.

      Those bikes are probably just artifacts of a different world than the environments where we ride them now. If you take any decently made bike and ride it enough you usually find some spot where it's talents shine. It's hard to understand the popularity of typical 1950s American balloon tired bikes until you ride them hard on yesterdays suburban streets and sidewalks. The scale of that terrain suits them and the gearing, handling and manners of those bikes suddenly comes together in a way that you would never have expected if you had only ridden them doing todays type of grown-up errands. Those bikes were perfect(well, pretty good) for kids screwing around on summer vacation, delivering papers and "commuting" to the pool or baseball diamond. There isn't enough of that world around for those bikes to survive in their original habitat (Boo Hoo).

      Those upright Dutch bikes are likely to be remarkably nimble and light on their toes if you could still find a bit of the ancient arboreal forest where they evolved to ride them in...

      Spindizzy

      Delete
    3. I also prefer a position which is quite rear of the seat tube - I know very little of the technicalities of 'correct position', but I know what feels right. At one time I tried the KOPs but no good for me; I also raised the handlebars on my mountain bike, so after some time of experimenting this new bike feels right. As for the Lycra v Leisure riders - the lyrca riders possibly outnumber leisure riders here but I have never felt the need to 'lycralise' myself - when I see them out riding (when they tear past me), all looking identical, seems somewhat of a cult mentality. However, we all ride bikes for different reasons and the world is big enough for us all.

      Delete
    4. Interesting comments on the design of DL-1 and Gazelle types. I’m not completely convinced, but it would make sense that designs that have lasted 100 years remain in production from reasons better than sunk-cost tooling and inertia – though I’ve wondered how much of the DL-1s design is a holdover from the pennyfarthing riding position, where the big wheel basically set your position in stone.

      KOPS: in 1990 I bought a wonderful 531C Falcon tout Sante’ and, pursuing KOPS with short femurs and a liking for full leg extension ended up with a Ritchy Logic MTB seatpost and the saddle all the way *forward* on the rails – it would slip nose-down until I put blue Loctite on the cradle – and a 140 mm stem. I’d skip the rear wheel when climbing and fast, curving downhills were terrifying. Grant Petersen put me right. The sad thing is that the bike would have been a wonderful fit for a butt-back position, with its long stays and short front-center.

      Delete
    5. "KOPS is pretty meaningless if you're not a young racer. Racing bikes are not made for people your age or mine."

      I forgot to add that KOPS is meaningless for anyone except perhaps as a starting point for adjustments. As for racing bikes, I love my steel road bikes with bars still below saddle and hanker after a classic 1970s stage racer. I'm 59.

      Delete
    6. There are a few minor problems with sitting way back. If you sit way back and ride hard you're going to feel strain in the back of your knees. Find that point by trial and error and then come forward a bit. From way back it is not much possible to sprint. You already know if you care about this one. Sitting way back changes bike handling. Different on each bike and I suggest lots of trial and error. Perfect excuse to ride/own lots of bikes.

      Sitting far forward causes strain on the front of the knee. Also you tend to fall off the bike much more often. Bad falls too, like going over the handlebars when braking hard, or braking on descents.

      In between those places you ride. I can't find a setback that I always like. Different on different bikes. Bikes that won't put the nose of a standard 27cm saddle at least 8cm behind the BB don't work for me. Some bikes 8cm is the spot and on others it could be anywhere from 8 to 12. Why some bikes have a sweet spot and others can be adjusted fore and aft until I get tired of experimenting beats me.

      Just go get that 70s bike, Bertin. They are amazingly cheap just now. No one wants them except us who remember them. Ride one while you can.

      Delete
  12. Hoping you'll write more about your experiences riding the Claud Butler. It's a rare bird that appears to be quite roadworthy.

    ReplyDelete
  13. City or racing bike? I think it’s also a question of time: a bike will feel right if it’s designed for a kind of route.
    Muscles need a good circulating blood: it’s interesting to figure out the effect of long lasting riding with appropriate saddle. Mistakes are not permitted.
    A long effort with a randonneur bike needs a relative narrow saddle and being curved forward. So, body weight can be shared between legs, arms and butt muscles.
    L.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I like Spin's comment on "the ancient arboreal forest" for riding a Dutch bike in - I think you would need to wear a red cape and carry a basket of strawberries in order to work the look (sic).
    I have a Betty Foy who fits me just right (although off the bike, I dislike the look of the albatross bars). Re: Spin's comment - I can imagine a Betty Foy in a 1950s fairground or parked outside an American diner.
    On a slightly different note, I find it strange that Riv are replacing the Robin's egg blue Betty for the orange Cheviot - apparently more men want mixtes, but not with hearts on...

    ReplyDelete