Friday, July 24, 2015

Nouveau-Velo-Americana? Thoughts on the Brooklyn Bicycle Co. Willow

Brooklyn Bicycle Willow
In a funny roundabout sort of way, I was reminded of Brooklyn Bicycle Co. this morning whilst browsing the website of a Scandinavian bicycle manufacturer, one of whose models happens to be named Brooklyn. This was not the first European brand I have recently come across using American references in their product descriptions. And it made me think of how funny it is that the trend goes both ways now. For the past 6-7 years, American companies have been naming their bicycles after Amsterdam and Copenhagen to suggest certain European characteristics. Now European companies are using references to places like Portland and NYC to suggest... what exactly? I had to think about that for a bit. Perhaps a more casual aesthetic, pared-down build, nimbler handling, brighter colour palette? As I thought of this combination of features, the image of a bicycle came to mind - made, as it happened, by a company that is not only named after Brooklyn but is actually based there. Since having met them at Interbike some years back, I have tried Brooklyn Bicycle Co. bikes a number of times, yet have neglected to write about them. Today this fact I shall remedy.

Brooklyn Bicycle Willow
Here is something I find interesting about Brooklyn Bicycle Co. machines. At first glance, they are nice, moderately priced bicycles with decent components that are basically updated versions of the classic 3-speed. Yet while other bikes of similar aesthetic, build and price tend to polarise opinions (on both value and ride quality), the Brooklyn Bicycle Co. bikes seem to evoke mostly approving, or at worst neutral reactions. Can it be that they've hit upon a sweet spot of sorts? Based on my test rides of several Willow and Franklin models, I admit that I can see the appeal.

Brooklyn Bicycle Co. Test Ride
My favourite aspects of the Willow and Franklin step-through models (geometrically identical, except in that the Willow is built for hub gearing and the Franklin for derailleur), is their ride quality. In fact this aspect of the bicycle comes more readily to my mind than details of its construction or even its overall look. The $599 Willow "feels" like a more expensive bicycle to ride. Its ride quality over bad roads is excellent, handling is delightfully stable, responsiveness to pedaling effort is immediately apparent, components seem solid and rattle-free. In many ways, it reminds me of a smaller (obviously), nimbler, version of the Xtracycle Radish (which I looooved, oh my god did I love it). This is not surprising - as both the Willow and the Radish were designed with input from Grant Petersen of Rivendell Bicycles (whose true calling obviously lies in city/transport bike design!) and share some similar build characteristics -

Brooklyn Bicycle Willow
including the low bottom bracket, long chainstays, mid-highish trail front end, semi-relaxed angles (71° head and seat tube), generous "cockpit" and wide, swept-back handlebars - resulting in a rider position that is at the same time leaned forward and open, at once active and relaxed.

Brooklyn Bicycle Willow
The cro-moly steel frames (built in Taiwan and China) are tidily welded, with cast crown forks on the Willow frames and unicrown forks on the Franklins. The framesets are built around either 700C or 26" wheels, depending on sizing, ensuring a nice proportional fit (and reducing chances of toe overlap with the front wheel).

Brooklyn Bicycle Willow
All bikes are equipped with front and rear rim brakes, colour-matched fenders, rear racks,

Brooklyn Bicycle Willow
fat cream tires, modest chain guards, kickstands,

Brooklyn Bicycle Willow"toothy" silver pedals,

Brooklyn Bicycle Willow
and "vegan leather" saddles and grips. Full specifications for the bicycle pictured here can be found on its product page, where the geometry chart is available also (under "sizing guide"). Weight is listed as 28lb for the hub geared models.

Brooklyn Bicycle Willow
Of course the aspect of these bikes that passers-by tend to notice the most is the lovely big handmade wooden crate on the rear rack. Available as an accessory, Brooklyn Bicycle Co. has recently redesigned this crate to be significantly lighter than the version I tried, and has also added a front crate to the lineup.

Brooklyn Bicycle Co. Test Ride
I found the size and depth of the crate to be just right for the secure portage of my bag and other possessions, and enjoyed using it very much. And I think this particular one would be even more popular, were it offered with a option to customise the engraving (what I'm really saying is that I'd like one with the Lovely Bicycle logo please!). But in seriousness, crates are a fantastically useful accessory for someone like me: keeping the messy pile of stuff I tend to tote around easy to access yet out of sight.

Brooklyn Bicycle Willow
Speaking of things out of sight, I am reminded of a recent chat I had with Ryan Zagata of Brooklyn Bicycle Co. When I told him how much I liked the bicycles' ride quality, he said he was glad and added, almost shyly: "There is a lot we put into these bikes that may not be visible, but makes a difference when you ride them." He was referring to using superior parts; to spending money on better wheels in leu of aesthetic flourishes, to the extra steps taken to ensure the framesets are rust-proof even if left outdoors in winters. "I know that you don't love the way our bicycles look," he added, "but I appreciate that you notice the other stuff and appreciate them despite that."

Actually, I'd never said to Ryan that I didn't like the way the bicycles looked! But I must have been pretty easy to read, because he was right. And it isn't anything specific about them either: I am fine with the straight step-through frames, with the welded construction, with the utilitarian aesthetic. For some reason, the way it all comes together on these particular machines just doesn't speak to me. But you know what? Jeez, so what. I mean, I like the look of bikes that other people don't; it's only a personal preference.

Brooklyn Bicycle Willow
The Brooklyn Bicycle Co. bikes ride great, are priced very reasonably (prices for step-through models start at $399), and plenty of folks find them attractive. They are also, judging by some reader feedback I've had, quite durable (and I'd love to hear more from owners on this end, if you care to contribute in the comments). Are they the prototypical American urban bike representing all that the Brooklyn reference suggests? Perhaps we ought to ask the Europeans! In any case, it's nice to see the cross-pollination - and the increasing number of nice, ridable, affordable bikes on both sides of the pond.

Brooklyn Bicycle Co. machines and accessories are available online or from local retailers. With thanks to the Bicycle Belle in Boston for the test rides! Full picture set of the Willow here.

28 comments:

  1. love the crate and the bike, so stylish! No complaint about looks here. I would gladly buy this very bike if I did not already have my Rosie (pink Bobbin) :P Do you think there is much of a difference?

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    1. They are pretty different in looks and somewhat different in geometry and fit (depending on the sizes), but functionally both are designed to do pretty much the same thing. Not that this needs to stop you from having both...

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  2. Descent components, at $399?

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    1. Not sure how suitable they are for descents, but you can see the specs on each bike's product page. $399 is for the most basic, single speed model btw.

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  3. I have the diamond frame version of the Willow, the Driggs 3. I've ridden the crap out of this bike and it just keeps going. It's the ride I reach for in bad weather, and been my primary grocery getter for almost two years. The thing about the Driggs is its handling. It tracks well, sucks up bad pavement without feeling like a heavy Dutch bike, and is reassuringly rigid under load with that double top tube. It reminds me a lot of a classic English roadster. Frankly, though, it's a lot better made than anything that came off the floor in Nottingham, and far better sized for American riders. Do yer butt a favor and add a Brooks B67 saddle.

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    1. Ah you have the 2T version!
      Thanks for the owner's feedback, Chris.

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    2. Chris,
      I would think that your bike is a hell of a lot newer than "anything that came off the floor in Nottingham" and thus benefits from modern tech and spec etc. As for being "far better sized for American riders" I am wondering what you mean by that , height , leg length, size of torso or what , people are people and built much the same worldwide ie in europe and the world outside the US. Now I do agree about the Brooks saddle, just wondering if there would be a larger size available, for American riders. Thats your phrase ,not mine.

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    3. I'm a little late on the reply here. For all my love of Raleigh -- my first bikes were all from Nottingham, and I still ride one -- the quality had declined sharply in its final years. And, yes, modern components are better in almost ever respect. I don't apologize for thinking most Raleighs were generally too small for Americans. The 23 inch frames were never as easy to find as 21 inch models. Most US men over 6 feet would need the former.

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  4. I think the looks are balanced by the price, the design and the spec. of the bike.
    Let's be honest people who buy these are not going to be people like me/us with multiple quality/high end bikes; they will predominantly be bought by people for whom this is their only bike OR maybe they have a nice bike and they need a more basic transportation bike(?) In that role it looks to excel.
    People who buy this bike and enjoy riding it; ideally would then go on to buy something with a more personalized flair OR maybe the appeal of the aesthetics of this bike is that people can individualize it, make it their own expression.
    I think they have a winner on their hands honestly, it's a whole lotta bike for the money!
    - masmojo

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  5. This is a beautiful bicycle at an unbelievably low price. For as much (or as little) as some people ride their bikes, I think it is just the thing. I think many people have bought too much bike; they just do not ride long enough or hard enough to justify the expense that the superior technology mandates. I bet this was a joy to ride and the woman in the top photo looks very happy with it. The photos are especially beautiful this time around.

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    1. The woman was actually a passer-by who saw me photographing the bicycle and became curious about it, which culminated in a little test ride and photoshoot : )

      Your point about "too much bike" is a good one. I have seen fledgling cyclists try to “go with the best” (usually a high-end roadbike they can’t ride) only to get so frustrated as to give up on bicycles altogether. At the other end of the spectrum is the logic of going cheap, lest you waste money on an activity you may not end up sticking with. Unfortunately, all too often going cheap ensures this very outcome, if the bike doesn’t feel so nice to ride or keeps breaking. So... yes, if a manufacturer is putting out a bike that offers a positive cycling experience for a novice, at a price that a first time buyer is willing to pay - that is a good thing.

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  6. A reasonable priced bike which is durable and attractive (though personally I am not into that shade of blue), the utilitarian aspect gives it a 'sharp' outline, which I quite like, as opposed to the 'flowery' lines of curved top tubes. In any case, this shows it is possible to purchase a decent bike at a very affordable price and for many people this bike would give years of service and enjoyment.

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    1. I should have mentioned they have all sorts of colours available. Orange, red, greenish, even black. Personally I'd love to see this bike with just a clear coat.

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    2. I just looked it up - yes quite a few colours available - I agree, a clear coat would look nice on this model, in any case, it is quite a smart looking bike.

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  7. It's an interesting offering. I'd say they are going for a old small-town image, so their imagined perfect customer might be Charlie Brown's elder sister or Charles Schulz himself for running down to the shop for groceries.

    For me I'm not sure that Brooklyn carries any image - difficult to do for a varied borough of 3m people, and spolit by celebs naiming their children after it as a word for conveying an image.

    Would I buy one? Perhaps for a second bike suitable for use by people visiting - easy and undemanding, and not unreasonably priced.

    The fake leather grips spoil it for me though - virtue signalling for vegetarians. Dead cow has much more integrity.

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    1. Not a fan of fake leather grips either. I prefer cork, rubber or hard plastic.

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  8. Just curious which frame size you rode. I'm 5'7" so I would be torn between the two.

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    1. Hi Marisa. I am 5' 6.5". Having tried all three sizes, I prefer the Medium. I like the extra clearance of the 26" wheels in that size, and how versatile it is for adjusting the rider's position to be more/less upright.

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    2. I did notice that you have the seat all the way up. I feel as if it's the one flaw I keep noticing in a lot of new roadster type bikes that I try--Public, notably--that the seats seem very low relative to the handlebars and that I have to raise the seat to a ridiculous extent to get any kind of balanced feel (and then hate the aesthetic of the naked seat list). Am I alone?

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    3. I think the manufacturers of city bikes have a bit of a dilemma on their hands. Often the persons most likely to buy these bicycles are cyclists who feel more comfortable (at least initially) with the handlebars set quite high. The seat tube to head tube ratio allows for that, while also making it possible to adjust to a more aggressive position for those riders who prefer it, as long as you don't mind the yards of naked seatpost (which, after all, on roadbikes is considered a good thing as it dampens road vibrations :) ). Personally I don't mind the exposed seatpost look. But yeah, for those who do it's a compromise.

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  9. I would say if I was looking in the sub $900. range, the Chrome moly frame, Design/Construction and aesthetic would certainly be near the top of my list! And without naming names, It looks better then half a dozen other bikes I have seen of this type, many costing quite a bit more!
    -masmojo

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    1. Sub-$900 range: 3 speed version of this bike at $599 is more appealing than 3-speed Detroit Bike at $699? If so, curious why.

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    2. Sorry, I just feel like they compare well with bikes that cost up to that amount ($900) main factor would just be that they offer only one bike (that I can see) with derailleur gearing. Everything is relative though; I don't want to go off saying they are underpriced, because I think their pricing is bang on. Indeed some of their rivals are probably a bit on the steep side.

      As I said earlier, this is not a bike I personally would be likely to buy, but I would definitely put it on my short list of bikes to suggest for somebody who was looking for a transportation bike.

      - masmojo

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  10. I got to try one when I stayed at a hotel in NYC that had the 3-speeds available for guests. I was perfectly comfortable riding it around lower Manhattan in traffic, which I suppose is saying something. A nice understated bike. And it's such a simple thing, but the crate was awesome, I used it to do some shopping when I was out. It still seems remarkable to me that so many supposed "transportation bikes" don't come stock with a way to carry stuff and it's nice that this one does. The only thing I didn't like was that the saddle was somewhat uncomfortable, but saddle fit of course is a personal preference and that's something I'd expect to change out on most bikes anyway.

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    1. Thanks for the feedback. FWIW they've redesigned the saddle in the past year. And I agree that transport bikes need to come with a carry system as standard.

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  11. I will assume that the manufacturer mentioned in the beginning of this post is Pelago. May I ask if you have any opinion on their bike model called Pelago Airisto?

    Having moved recently I have a new need for a bike and in my search for one I found your blog and it has been a pleasure to read through it and understanding the journey that you have taken on bike-wise!

    Last time I regularly used a bike was some 15 years ago when I lived in Copehagen and rode a vintage dutch-styled bike which suited me perfectly. Where I live now there are more hills and while i like to have a somewhat upright position (enough to provide oversight when riding along with my children) I feel a need for something that will be more helpful also uphill. Weight is also an issue since I have to carry it in and out of our basement.

    Through your blog I have found some examples of American brands that seem to fulfill my spec but when I google and search for European options I have not been very successfull. Any kind of tips would be most welcome!

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    1. I have not tried any Pelago bikes. But that may change soon.

      My experiences with European upright bicycles include: Achielle, Abici, Bella Ciao, Bobbin, Brompton, Paper Bicycle, Pashley, Pilen and Retrovelo. I don't know where you live, but all of these are easier available in Europe than in the US. Again, not knowing where you live it's hard to know what you mean by hills and distances, but the Brompton has been extremely versatile for me over a variety of conditions, from flat urban to hilly rural.

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