Cars, Bikes & Boats

Moving down a gear

Design-literate urbanites who never saw themselves as cyclists are now being seduced by the elegant simplicity of the classic upright bike. Mark C O’Flaherty reports.

September 13 2010
Mark C O’Flaherty

There is little point in attempting to reinvent the wheel. The 125-year-old “safety bicycle” is a simple machine that functions well. And it’s enticing a new kind of urban rider who has no interest in fluorescent Lycra or double-digit gears. Rather, he or she (for many are female) is gravitating towards models that chime with a sunny, sepia-toned dolce vita. These updated classic frames are as practical as they are beautiful, with minimal or no gears. Forget the aggressive trappings of the Tour de France; think instead of the freewheeling lovers in Truffaut’s Jules et Jim. As James Thomas, industrial designer and editor of the influential website Bicycle Design, says, “People want objects that do one thing very well and don’t have a lot of extra features that just add clutter to their lives.”

Many of the most coveted bikes on the market have an impressive design pedigree. For example, the Pedersen Model T (£1,700) – based on Danish designer Mikael Pedersen’s 1893 design – has the visual presence of an updated museum piece. Originally built in Gloucestershire at the turn of the 19th century to very high specifications, it is now manufactured mostly in Germany, though the process is no less craft-intensive. Its look is thrillingly modernist, with a whisper-thin crossbar angling upwards from the saddle that resembles an artful bow and arrow. It’s also exceedingly comfortable, forcing you to sit completely upright.

Tom Morris, director of the Islington cycle boutique Bobbin, the self-proclaimed “most beautiful bike shop in Britain”, believes that “nostalgic bikes are a perfect fit for modern life. The chains are often covered so you don’t need trouser clips. You have mudguards, lights and broad handlebars for luggage. You can choose a step-through frame if you wear a skirt. It’s all pared down and functional.” As well as selling own-brand bikes – constructed by Pointer in Holland – Bobbin stocks the very popular entry-level Pashley, the Poppy (£435). “It has straight handlebars, so you sit a little more forward than usual and feel nippy through traffic,” says Sian Emmison, Morris’s business partner and wife.

British heritage brand Pashley is one of the most renowned manufacturers of classic town bikes. “We’ve been ‘doing retro’ for 84 years,” says managing director Adrian Williams. “and we’ve found that, all of a sudden, the bikes seem to click with people’s imaginations. A daily commute through the city feels more like a Sunday ride down a leafy village lane.”

Pashley bikes are among the most popular at Adeline Adeline, a boutique-style store that opened in New York’s Tribeca in March, aimed primarily at businesswomen and stocking classic European frames. Owner Julie Hirschfield rides both a Pashley, which she likes for its “stability and comfort”, and an Italian-made Abici. She appreciates that the lighter-framed Abici bikes – the GranTurismo Donna and GranTurismo Uomo (both $950) – might be more suitable for New Yorkers with walk-up apartments. “I ask people how they are going to use their bikes and where they live before making recommendations,” she says. Adeline Adeline also stocks Biomega’s Amsterdam bike ($2,000), a shaft-driven model with no chain and no exposed greased elements.

Alongside this, there are now carbon belt-driven bikes entering the market; belts are oil-free and don’t wear out in the same way as chains. US company Trek is leading the way in this area with its progressive District designs (from $1,100) – these new bikes are for people who don’t do maintenance.

But among the bikes with chains, in the window of new north-London cycle store Push there is a latte-coloured Bianchi Pista Via Brera (£699) with cork grips and a praline-toned suede saddle. It’s simple, slightly retro and so beautiful that it stops passing foot traffic. “Those bikes are like gold dust now,” says Push’s proprietor Ciaran Carleton. “We’ve had so many people see it and come in who’ve never cycled before.”

Push is a paradigm of the new culture in bike retail. “I initially thought about having a sign above the door saying ‘no Lycra’,” says Carleton. “I’ve never liked bike shops. They’re stuck in the past. I used to work for Paul Smith and I wanted to open somewhere that offered the same quality of service you’d get if you went to Floral Street to buy a jacket. After all, the expense is the same, if not more.”

Adeline Adeline is based on the same principal. The casual, design-literate cyclist doesn’t necessarily know anything about mechanics and doesn’t want to. “I wanted a retail experience that made sense to me as a woman, rather than going into a gritty and cluttered garage atmosphere,” says Hirschfield, who has adopted a system pioneered by Bobbin in London – the appointment-only, personalised consultation and test drive. “It doesn’t have to be about talking techie,” says Emmison. “Sometimes it can be about getting the right red to match your jacket.”

One of the first boutique-style cycle stores to appear in the UK was Velorution, which opened in London five years ago. “I’ve seen changes comparable to the development of the restaurant scene in the 1980s,” says owner Andrea Casalotti. “We’ve seen a huge boom in the number of riders, but also more interest in different designs. We’ve seen a lot more women come in. When we opened, the riders in London were probably 80 per cent male, now we have more female customers than male.” The Brompton, the British-designed, fold-up bike (from £600), is a key functional and commercial success story at Velorution. It’s a bike that Castalotti believes “will end up in every home at some point”.

Many of those who will be taking advantage of the planned “cycle superhighways” within central London, and who have been making use of the recently opened 170 extra miles of cycle lanes in Manhattan are part of the new Zeitgeist. They are more likely to own Dutch town bikes than garish mountain ones. Some of them may be nostalgia enthusiasts who take part in the annual Tweed Run in London, meandering 12 miles through the capital in dapper attire, but more of them will be patrons of the recently opened Old Street café Look Mum No Hands!, where they can have a puncture fixed while working on their laptops with an espresso and a slice of millionaire’s shortbread. It’s a functional and stylish lifestyle enterprise on one of the capital’s main cycling arteries.

Patricia Barrameda is a financial services manager at KPMG LLP and rides a limited-edition Pashley Phantom Roadster, numbered 75 of 80 (Bobbin stocks several versions of the Roadster, from £495). She’s typical of the new urban cyclist. “I cycle because I gain a different perspective on the city than when travelling on foot or by tube,” she says. “I also like the new London bike culture because it’s thriving and accepting of everyone. A bicycle can say a lot about a person; it becomes an expression of the individual.”

Barrameda was recently photographed with her Pashley by Marcus Ross, founder and editor-in-chief of online style magazine Jocks&Nerds, for his project LondonBikeStyle, which will appear as a book next year. It’s a personal passion for Ross, who believes that cycling is the most sensible, as well as handsome, form of modern conveyance. “For all the engineering, technology and money bestowed on cars, it’s difficult to see how they function better than a bicycle,” he says. “They’re certainly not quicker in London. I’ve often ridden several miles through the city and kept pace with or whizzed past a Porsche.”

Another of Ross’s photo subjects is Paul Smith, who has collaborated on two bike frames with Mercian (£175) and a limited-edition striped saddle with Japanese brand Kashimax. “My love of cycling started when I was 11,” says Smith, “and I think bikes are just getting more and more special and beautiful.”

The advances in design-led bike culture can be attributed partly to the style press. Liberated from its garish sporting shackles, cycling is more fashionable than ever, something that prompted Giorgio Armani and Chanel to collaborate on long sold-out limited-edition frames. Film director, photographer and writer Mikael Colville-Andersen set up the website Copenhagen Cycle Chic in early 2007, documenting riders in one of the most sophisticated cycle cultures in the world. Now there are similar websites documenting riders in cities from Japan to Canada.

“It started when I took a picture of an elegantly poised Copenhagener at a red light,” says Colville-Andersen. “I didn’t notice the bike. I just saw the morning light, the poise and the street. The photo got a lot of attention. People thought it was odd that the subject was wearing a skirt. I thought it was ridiculous because that’s how you ride, in your normal clothes.”

People are now, as Emmison says, “buying bikes the same way they buy shoes: on impulse”. And the accessories are just as desirable; polka-dot pannier bags, helmets disguised as bowler hats and stylish jackets that blend traditional tweed with high-visibility material. More than anything, the cycle revolution is happening because the bikes are beautiful and fit with owners’ lifestyles. People who never saw themselves as cyclists are being seduced by the healthy, eco-conscious “two wheels better” ethos. As Colville-Andersen says, “Go and open your closet. It’s already filled with cycling clothes.”