City Bike Faceoff
Posted on 10 March 2018
Looking for a city bike? They can be hard to find! Luckily, we here at Curbside have been serving the city bike market for 30 years - it's what we do best!
Why are city bikes hard to find? This requires a little history lesson.
Now, city bikes are not new to North America - not at all! - but in the past century they seemed to appear and disappear as transportation trends changed. One has to remember, of course, that the bicycle was designed at the same time as the car. And for a short period - when people still lived close to work - the bicycle dominated urban streets as transportation. Back then, city bikes were built in North America for North Americans and for a time, they sold like Ford Model T's. Since then, of course, the car has dominated, and - at least for a short time - there was good reason for that. After the industrial revolution, cities were polluted and the suburbs formed a vision of the country; except, of course these suburbs eventually piled upon each other in never ending sprawl. For good reason, this vision is under serious challenge today!
City bikes made a short comeback in the 70's as oil prices peaked, but North America wasn't quite ready then to fully challenge the suburban dream. While neighbourhoods like ours in Toronto have never stopped growing and densifying, it was really only after the Great Recession of 2008 that things changed on a continental scale. Want proof? Perhaps the most empirical measure of this change is how "walk scores" have solely determined land value in North America today. The highest land value is in areas that are dense and offer a "high proximity" lifestyle. Today this high proximity lifestyle is served by new infrastructure, like growing bike lanes! Things are changing, and the change is literally becoming concrete.
As a store located in Toronto's legendary Annex neighbourhood, we've always been witness and participant to this change. The Annex was home to urban theorist Jane Jacobs who already back in the 80's called the dense, high-proximity Annex neighbourhood the model neighbourhood for North American cities. For nearly 30 years we've been lucky to serve a turnkey market of enlightened citizens who know that - for most of their trips, at least - it's far more sensible to ride a bike than to walk or drive. That's why we were the first to import city bikes into North America and why remain leaders in the field. And, being from the Northeast, with the snow and potholes to prove it, we know what makes a city bike a real city bike. So, are you riding around the city and want to hear the options? Let's dig in!
DURABILITY FOR HIGH PROXIMITY LIVING
Connecting urban distances too far to walk and too close to drive
The 5 mile radius. Studies in Holland show few city cyclists ride no more than 5mi in a single trip
City bikes are designed for those who have a high-proximity lifestyle. Studies show that most people who live, work and play in a downtown area live up to 90% of their lives within a 7.5km radius of home - often called The Last Mile in Transportation studies. If that's you, you probably know from experience that these distances share two things in common: first, they are too close to drive and second, too far too walk. So, how to solve this dilemma?! As the Dutch have learned, these distances are best bikeable, which is why dense cities in Europe have always used the bike as transportation. In Holland, nearly 40% of all trips taken under 5 miles are taken by bike. Here in North America, most car trips are taken for the same distance. And that causes nothing but stress and parking tickets. It's time to free yourself!
Now, a city bike is very different from a bike designed for recreation or performance. First of all, it is made for short-burst, last-mile transportation, so the position is safe and upright. Moreover, the frame and wheels are incredibly strong, the parts are low maintenance, and there is always fenders and chain guards so that you can wear whatever you want for your next meeting or brunch out with friends. A city bike is also inherently beautiful, a design object recognized from exhibits in the MoMA to fashion and design magazines. But, that said, a real city bike is far more than just skin-deep beauty. Even the paint has to be strong to avoid chipping.
City bikes are still not easy to find in North American bike stores. After a century of serving a suburban and niche performance market, many bike stores often feel masculine and sporty in their ethos. This will change, but right now it's not changing nearly fast enough. As a result, many customers are bypassing bike stores and buying online. Unfortunately, too many bike companies care about tapping into the skin-deep beauty of a city bike rather than its durability. As we like to say, many companies (usually selling online) build bikes that are good at making money but bad at actually functioning.
A real city bike is inherently beautiful but beneath that exterior they are also the toughest bikes we sell; made for the daily potholes, weather, and contingencies of life in the big city. So, let's take a look at what makes a good city bike a good city bike.
Living outside takes a tough skin
Fahrradmanufaktur: difficult name, an easy bike
Storing your bike outside during the day overnight takes a real toll on bike frames. No recreational hybrid bike or mountain bike was designed to be locked next to poles for hours, especially not when the weather gets salty and cold. Poles scratch paint, paint chips away and rust starts to manifest on the exposed tubes. It's a really hard problem to fight! Bringing your bike in overnight or in bad weather is a solution, but not everyone can. So, what to do?
If you store your bike outside year round in a city like Toronto, almost nothing beats a European bike like Achielle, Pelago or Fahrradmanufaktur. These steel frames are undercoated for rust-resistance and powder-coated for chip-resistance. Every part is either stainless steel or alloy, and every part - including the cables - are sealed from the elements. So, while buying a European bike will save you from buying a bike again (ever), all of this weather protection can mean the bike can be on the heavy side. But not necessarily… read on!
After we imported Dutch bikes we started carrying newer North American models from California based companies like Linus. In fact, we were the company that first brought Linus into Canada!
Now, brands like Linus tend to dominate the market today and are great as a first-time bike. These bikes are lightweight, fashionable and are sold at very attractive price-points. However, the finishes lack the same strong chip or rust resistance as our European models. Being from California, they tend to be strictly two-season bikes. So, if you're not the type to stretch your commutes into winter and can store your bike inside, we love Linus for their colours, price-point, and strong leadership in the entry-level city bike market. Unlike many of their competitors who sell online, Linus focusses on the things you often overlook; strong wheels using double walled rims and rust-free stainless steel spokes. Even if the finishes aren't as durable as a Dutch bike, the wheel strength needs to be equal. Because, unlike snow, salt and frost, potholes never go out of season.
NEXT GENERATION CITY BIKES
Supply side meets new demand from Toronto to Berlin
Fahrradmanufaktur: lighter frames, modern technology, same clean design
Finding a bike between California brands like Linus and Dutch brands like Achielle has not been easy. While cities like Amsterdam created the historical demand for city bikes, these are small cities that tend to be flat and the supply-side never needed to move beyond the heavy bikes still used today. Likewise, brands like Linus are focussed more on large US sunbelt market than tiny markets like Canada. So, where was a new solution to be found?
As larger cities in Northern Europe increased urban density after 2008 a new set of demands began to be articulated for the high-proximity lifestyles of larger and hillier cities like Berlin, Munich and Hamburg. The supply-side switched away from Holland and Denmark to cycling power-houses like Germany, the best example being Germany's Fahrradmanufaktur - a company that began in Berlin to answer the question around what a big-city city-bike should look like.
Unlike Dutch bikes or bikes like Linus, Fahrradmanufaktur makes bikes that are light enough to lift inside overnight and light enough to ride longer distances through the urban sprawl of a large North American city. But, they're also durable enough to store outside year round. That makes them perfect for most North American cyclists who want something durable to negotiate daily errands yet light enough enough to explore new neighbourhoods or recreational paths on the weekend - whether inside the city or outside. They may not be as pretty (that's arguable) but if form is function, these are elementally beautiful bikes.
Like Dutch bikes, Fahrradmanufaktur bikes are powder-coated for maximum chip-and-rust resistance but unlike Dutch bikes the frames are superlight; constructed of either aluminum or very lightweight cro-moly steel. From a materials standpoint, this makes Fahrradmanufaktur the undisputed leader in next generation city bikes. These bikes may lack the ornate fashion-sense of many other brands today but Fahrradmanufaktur is Germanic enough to know that good function is always the best form. Their frames are strong and use lightweight materials, they generally come in one colour (black) and the overall spec is unapologetically modern. The price of these next generation city bikes is certainly more than brands like Linus but they occupy a strong middle position ($1000+) - and it's in this middle position where most innovation seems to be happening these days.
Want something prettier with the same Fahrradmanufaktur quality? Look no further than Pelago. These bikes hail from Helsinki where winters are dark and long. Like the Fahrradmanufaktur bikes, the Pelago bikes are powder-coated to resist chips and rust, and have remarkably strong wheels.
Beneath the skin, a strong skeleton
Frame strength is important because unlike your racing bike or mountain bike, you lock your city bike to metal poles all day, and that hurts your bike. Most bikes in North America continue to be designed for riding outside of the city whether casually or for sport. These bikes are built with the assumption that the rider wants something light with lots of gears. The overall ethos is speed and distance, and that's where all the R&D money goes.
A city cyclist is very different. They are not on their bike for hours riding a recreational path on the weekend. They are out there everyday doing short-burst distances in cities where speed is constantly interrupted by stop lights and constant turns. These bikes need to be durable, and not just when they're riding through potholes and streetcar tracks, but when they're doing nothing - like being locked to a pole. If the bike industry down in California knew their bikes were being stored next to poles overnight in a wintry city like Toronto, they'd be back to the drawing board pretty quick.
Steel remains the strongest material for a bike, but without good finishes (as we saw above), steel can rust. Aluminum is the other option. Aluminum doesn't rust and is significantly lighter than steel. But aluminum is generally 30% weaker than steel. If you lock it next to a pole you expose it to a high contingency environment it can dent (cars parallel parking, other cyclists locking next to you, drunken vandals). And if it dents, the frame needs to be replaced, full stop. When aluminum dents it loses all of its end-to-end tensility and one day it can just crumple, something engineers call "catastrophic failure" (yikes!). But, aluminum can be strong for city riding and locking-up, but only if the designers made that a design priority.
If you're riding an aluminum frame originally designed for recreation, chances are good the aluminum walls are very thin and formed exclusively to be lightweight. That's great for longer rides in the country, but its hard to see how this benefits the city cyclist. However, if you're riding a frame like a Devinci or Fahrradmanufaktur you're riding a frame that has wall-thickness where it matters. With aluminum, it all comes down to the assumption of the bicycle designer. Both Devinci and Fahraddmanuktur design their bikes in places where people use their bikes for both city and recreation. These frames are designed to be light but strong. They may be a touch heavier than the competition, but 2% added weight can mean 98% more life out of the bike. Plus, they don't rust.
Don't derail your maintenance
It makes sense that bikes designed for recreation try to give you a lot of gears. If you're riding a long recreational path or have your bike at the cottage you need a wide range of gears for hills, speed and longer rides. But, in a high proximity environment this generally isn't required, especially if all of this gear choice adds a ton of extra maintenance.
Most bikes sold at most bike stores have a minimum of 21 speeds. Nowadays the average is 27 speeds with some bikes topping out at 33 speeds. What all of these gearing systems have in common is the use of derailleur. A derailleur is literally a device that 'derails' the chain up-and-down from cog to cog. What these systems also have in common is that both the cogs and derailleurs are all external and incredibly fussy. If the derailleur gets bumped one day when you lock your bike to a pole, it will require a re-adjustment. If the cable that connects the shifter to the derailleur stretches even a millimetre it throws all the gears out of whack. That's the one problem with the Devinci hybrids we sell. While they may have strong wheels and frames built for city cyclists, they feature derailleur systems that limit these bikes to indoor storage and Spring/Summer riding.
City bikes use an entirely different system. On a city bike the gears are inside the hub of the rear wheel, sealed from all external factors, from weather to bumps. For most cyclists in a high proximity environment, a three speed internal gear hub is more than enough. Three speed hubs, found on brands like Linus, Achielle and Pelago, give you a wide range that can climb up low-grade hills and still give you the efficiency you require from stoplight to stoplight. But, suppose you have longer distances, more hills, or want to use the bike on the weekend for recreational rides as well? Fahrradmanufaktur make bikes with wide range seven or eight speed hubs that can truly multitask city rides and recreational adventures. It's not often you can find a bike that multitasks both city and longer recreational rides equally, but Fahrradmanufaktur does both, and without compromise.
Other bikes, like Achielle use both internal gears and internal brakes. These internal brakes use the same drum brake technology found in most cars and are both powerful and sealed from all external factors. However, drum brakes add significant weight to the bike. That makes Achielle the ultimate bike for outdoor storage and high proximity cycling but limits its ability to multi-task recreationally beyond the regular city commute. That said, if you're buying a bike to one thing and one thing well, nothing carries you with more elegance and glory than an Achielle bike - they are the design archetype, the same style of bike the Dutch have used for short-burst commutes for over a century.
The upright cyclist
Achielle Babette: an upright bike for your upright life
Because a high proximity lifestyle generally entails shorter point-to-point rides, the position on most city bike defaults to the upright. An upright position keeps your eyes high above traffic and ready for any contingency. It's also very, very comfortable!
To establish this upright position a city bike uses a completely different frame geometry than most recreational bikes. Recreational bikes are optimized for distance and speed, that means that their geometry tilts the back forward so that your quads are activated for more power and puts more weight on the handlebar for high speed steering.
A city bike is different. Instead of using a long top tube that stretches the body long over the bike, it uses a shorter top tube that squares the shoulders and gives your elbows more bend for managing sharp corners. And, while a city bike often uses a taller handlebar position, this position is gained not just thought the handlebar but by lengthening the height of the bicycles head tube (the frame-tube that the handlebars and front-forks attach into). Step-through bikes tend to have very tall head tubes. These bikes keep you sitting bolt upright with no weight on the handlebars whatsoever. Meanwhile, a Roadster bike tends to have a shorter head-tube. A Roadster pivots the riders weight slightly over the bar, giving the bike higher steering reactivity.
And no, a Step Through bike is not a Women's bike nor is a Roadster a Men's bike. Gendered bikes are so last century! Both are city bikes that offer two distinct ride qualities. One trip to Holland reveals thousands of women on Roadsters and thousands of men on Step Throughs. It's a beautiful sight. The day of men's and women's bikes are thankfully over.
You don't change to drive a car, neither should you on a bike
For years the bicycle industry used to only recognize one form of city cyclist, the "commuter" cyclist. This was someone who didn't live a high-proximity lifestyle and instead commuted by bike into the city, usually from the suburbs. This person was a bit of a warrior. He or she battled cars for space, and because the distances were longer, rode a hunched-over performance bike and wore lots of spandex gear. When this person got to the office, usually covered in sweat, they took a shower, pulled their work clothes from their pannier bags, and started the day. This market still exists, but to many city cyclists, the idea that you should bring a change of clothes with you for every short errand seems a hard sell. Yeah, fair enough.
The whole point of a city bike is that you can wear whatever you want, whether that means you're off to an important meeting or hot date. One visit to Copenhagen or Amsterdam reveals thousands of beautiful people dressed up on their handsome city bikes. While all of the city bikes we sell have fenders to keep mud off your shoes and back, not all city bikes are created equal when it comes to the chain guard. A chain guard protects your clothes from the oily and dirty chain, so you can wear your light jeans or khakis, maxi skirt, wide-leg pants, or tailored trousers spotlessly.
Bikes like Achielle and (some models of) Fahrradmanufaktur take clothing protection seriously. On some models, Fahrradmanufaktur uses a 3/4 "shotgun" style of chaincase where only the bottom 1/4 near the rear is exposed - fine for everything except maxi-skirts and anything flowy. On other models Fahrradmanufaktur use the phenomenal Hebie chain glider, a German made chaincase that wraps around the entire chain, protecting the chain from wheel splatter and your clothing from chain oil. Achielle uses the full chain-case on every model of their bikes... a bike as elegant as your wardrobe.
Other bikes, like Linus tend to use a half-chaincase, where only the top of the chain is covered but the bottom is still exposed. It works, but you do need to watch what you wear sometimes.
THE WHEEL DEAL
Achielle bikes: handbuilt frames - handbuilt wheels
No part on a bike is more important than the wheels. As we said earlier, a frame may not be able to handle all seasons stored outside, but potholes are never out of season. You need strong wheels.
A city bike needs incredibly strong wheels. The abuse a wheel takes in the city is more severe than anything a mountain bike takes off-road. Wheels are also expensive, the most expensive part on your bike. So buying a cheaper bike with weak wheels or an expensive bike with lighter recreational wheels means you're putting yourself at great risk when you accidentally didn't see that pothole, and the cost of replacement is often half of the original bikes worth.
The nature of a strong wheel is that it must minimally use a double-walled rim and stainless steel spokes. This, for instance, is something you don't see on most department store bikes, and that's also why department stores bikes seem so much cheaper. A double-walled rim is an internally box-sectioned rim, so the metal you see on the outside is encircled with another layer of metal on the inside. It's something you can't see on the sale floor (which is why department stores cynically use them), but we can't stress enough the importance.
Meanwhile, spokes are thin strips of metal that absorb all impacts and hold up you and your bike. They're pretty important. A weak spoke is a weak wheel, and it's not unusual for weaker spokes to stretch and break, causing the wheel to crumple - which is as dangerous as it is expensive. Stainless steel spokes are very strong and also rust-resistant, very important if you're leaving your bike outside year round. All of our bikes use stainless steel spokes and double-walled rims. The only exception is Achielle, who use heavy-duty single-walled rims made out of stainless steel, which we must admit look very nice.
On many recreational bikes you'll often see wheels that look like they're missing spokes. That's because they are. These bikes were designed solely for recreation outside of the city, and wheels are often a great place for a designer to cut weight off a bicycle. These wheels are not only weaker, they're also more expensive. One of the reasons we carry Devinci is that even their recreational bikes are designed for city riding. All the Devinci bikes we carry feature strong frames and equally strong wheels. It may add a touch of weight, but if you're a city cyclist, durability should never be compromised for the sake of weight. Companies like Devinci find the balance, few other companies even seem to know city cyclists exist.
GEOMETRY & HANDLING
Stability, agility, and life beyond the city
Fahrradmanufaktur - the most advanced city bike on the market
So far we've just looked at specs, which is important, but what what about the way the bike rides? You can get all the features you need, but what if the bike just doesn't feel safe? And what exactly does safety mean?
Let's imagine a very typical scene in the city. You're riding with a load of groceries (or a child on a child seat) when all of a sudden a pedestrian steps out in front of you. At one-and-the-same-time the bike must duck the pedestrian while staying stable to the ground. The words here are agility and stability - and for a city bike, both are equally important aspects of safety.
Traditional city bikes like the Achielle Craighton tend to be very stable but not terribly agile. That's because they were designed for short trips though the bike lanes of Amsterdam. In cities that lack bike lanes there is more high-stakes contingency that needs to be handled; a better handling bike keeps you safe in dodgy situations. Some answer this with high agility bikes like Pure Fix fixed gears. These feel fast and fun but you need to be pretty confident and a more aggressive to ride one.
Brands like Linus tend to be a bit more agile than they are stable while next-generation city bikes like Fahrradmanufaktur and Pelago all hold a nice balance between the two. That's because bikes like Fahrradmanufaktur and Pelago were designed for larger cities with more sprawl, and for a rider who wants a durable, better handling city bike that can also multitask longer recreational rides. These bikes keep your centre of gravity low to the ground while engineering agility into the front end of the bike and stability into the rear. A Fahrradmanufaktur handles much like a modern Devinci hybrid bike, and that's why these bikes also make terrific recreational bikes outside of the city.
There's a bike out there for you!
Linus - The best starter bike for the price
What's the best bike for you? If you're a Spring/Summer city cyclist who is only negotiating a high proximity radius - and stores your bike inside overnight - a bike like the Linus 3 speed is perfect. If you want something more outdoor storable or more investment grade we'd recommend a Pelago, Fahrradmanufaktur or an Achielle.
If you're riding longer distances and want your bike to multitask both city and recreation there are increasingly more and more options available. On the inexpensive side you can simply buy a Devinci hybrid - they are one of the few hybrids with wheels and frames strong enough for the city - but you will suffer more maintenance as well as laundry costs (since you can't cover the chain on a derailleur equipped bike). The best option, what we like to call the most investment-grade bike is a Fahrradmanufaktur; these bikes can multitask city and recreational for life and without compromise. Your clothing stays clean, the parts are low maintenance, and the geometry is at-once upright but also perfectly tuned for longer rides on days off.
Did this help? We sure hope so! If you have any questions do send us an email! firstname.lastname@example.org