Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Springing to Life: the Simcoe Roadster

Simcoe Roadster
At one point, many of the European city bicycles available in North America were distributed by a company called Fourth Floor in Toronto. Through test riding the bikes they carried, I got to know the guys who ran Fourth Floor and eventually learned they were working on their own line of products. At Interbike 2012 the newly launched Simcoe was unveiled, with a display of prototype bicycles and bags. The idea behind the brand was to make a quality, yet no-frills classic city bicycle, at a reasonable pricepoint. The prototypes looked good, but the final product was not yet ready. By the time Simcoe bikes did become available it was Spring 2014, with a number of other companies promoting a similar concept. Would Simcoe stand out? In the final days of my last visit to Boston, I got a chance to find out, as the Bicycle Belle received a sample of the Simcoe Signature Roadster. We were actually expecting the step-through model, but there must have been a mix-up. No matter. No sooner was the diamond frame assembled that I took it out for a spin.

Simcoe Roadster
When I do a test ride for the blog, I will normally spend some time examining and photographing the bicycle before riding it. But the way this day worked out, I hopped on the Simcoe first, and only after the test ride did I even get a good look at it. So my first impressions were based purely on feel. And these impressions were two-fold. First, this bike felt like a vintage roadster. That mysterious ride quality particular to old English 3-speeds that modern manufacturers can't seem to recreate was there. It was not a cushiness attributable to obvious things like tire width or even frame flex, but to something different, something only those who've ridden bikes like the Raleigh DL-1 and the Humber and the Royal Enfield will understand, while others might be skeptical about (and perhaps rightly so!). Bike construction is not magic and every sensation can be explained if you look hard enough. Probably Simcoe tapped into the right combination of tubing, geometry, wheel rims, et cetera, to achieve this feel - either deliberately or due to sheer luck. Still - subjectively, that intangible "vintage bike feel" was there.

The second thing I noticed while riding the Simcoe, was that it fit me in a way that worked very well for stop-and-go city cycling. It is a long bike with a fairly low bottom bracket. This combination accomplishes several things that I like in a city bike. The low bottom bracket makes it possible to adjust saddle height so as to get full leg extension when pedaling, and also put a toe down at a stop without dismounting. The long top tube combined with the swept back handlebars gives the cockpit a nice roomy feel while allowing for an upright position. The length also prevents toe overlap with the front wheel, as well as "handlebar poke" on turns (the latter doesn't bother me, but some riders complain of it). While I much prefer to ride a step-through for transportation to a diamond frame, I could forgive this bike because it otherwise felt so nice. 

As far as speed, Simcoe describes the Roadster as being "upright yet agile …perfect for short rides through the city, and long rolls through the park." This is pretty much spot on. The bike maneuvers, accelerates and progresses uphill nicely, especially considering its relaxed feel and length. But it is a city bike, so any comments on speed and climbing have to be taken in that context. Compared to other upright city bikes I've tried, it is on the faster end of the spectrum. The 3 speeds on the model I rode felt more than sufficient for the relatively benign hills of Cambridge I tackled. 

Simcoe Roadster
Getting back to the bicycle itself, the Simcoe Roadster is a fairly straightforward English 3-speed inspired city bike. Relaxed angles, upright position, hub gearing, fenders, chaincase, rear rack, kickstand. Front and rear caliper brakes. The Roadster bikes are available in 20" and 22" frame sizes, both with 700C wheels and 35mm Delta Cruiser tires. The weight is not stated, but I would estimate it to be between 30 and 35lb.

Simcoe Roadster
The Taiwan-made frames (described as combination hi-ten steel and cromoly) are welded, with a couple of faux-lug flourishes on the headtube. 

Simcoe Roadster
The cromoly fork features a nice twin plated crown with a 4-cornered star emblem. 

Simcoe Roadster
The headbadge is a sort of stylised leaf. I could be reading too much into this, but maybe an homage to its Canadian provenance? The word Simcoe itself - which at first I thought might be a combination of the founders' initials followed by "Co" as in "company," is in fact the name of a town in Ontario. 

Simcoe Roadster
The Roadster's chaincase is one-sided and open at the rear. While not fully enclosed, it allows for easier wheel removal and still keeps most of the chain covered. The rear rack is extra long,

Simcoe Roadster
with built-in bungee cord attachment points.

Simcoe Roadster
Eyelets at the fork dropouts allow for an optional front rack as well. 

Simcoe Roadster
A Brooks B68 saddle comes standard with this bike. The cost for the 3-speed Signature Roadster model as shown is $899. At that price it comes fully equipped for utility cycling, with the notable exception of lighting. 

Simcoe Roadster
As far as the Simcoe Roadster's looks, I am neutral. Abstracting my dislike of this almost neon shade of kelly green (it's also available in blue and slate gray), the bike comes across to me as rather ordinary, perhaps even made a little awkward by the extra-long rear rack. Were I to see it in a line-up next to a Linus, Papillionnaire, and the like, I don't think it would stand out as a "nicer" bike, despite the stock Brooks saddle. Yet it is priced a step above these. To me, the price difference would be worth it for the feel and ride quality of the Simcoe. But I wonder whether the lack of aesthetic differentiation might be an issue for potential customers. 

Simcoe Roadster
If you are considering Simcoe's Step-Through model, please note that I did not ride that version of the bike. Judging by the pictures, the step-throughs are constructed differently from the diamond frames. I am curious to try one and perhaps some day I will, but for now my feedback applies only to the Roadster. 

For a company brand new to bicycle manufacturing, the Simcoe Roadster is an impressive start. As distributors, the guys behind it have had a great deal of experience with both European city bikes and North American customers, and it shows. And it probably didn't hurt that one of the designers learned frame building from Mike Flanigan. If you're in the market for a sub-$1,000 city bike and are chasing that intangible "vintage bike feel" in a modern machine, the Simcoe Signature Roadster is worth a look - but more so, a test ride. 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

To Roll Softly and Carry a Big Camera

Photographing by the Windmills
Easter weekend here is stretched into a nearly weeklong holiday of endless sunshine and gleeful business closures. It is quiet. Not in a hushed churchy way. But more in the lazy, sunbaked way of a backwater beach town in the waning days of August. The morning is so bright it could be mid-day. The sun does not set till nearly 9:00 in the evening. Friday gives way to Saturday, then Sunday, with a viscous seamlessness. This weather and this silence are disorienting, making me feel drowsy at random times of the day.

At an hour that could be early morning or could, just as easily, be high noon, I get on my bike and go. I have a route to follow, designed weeks prior in the unlikely event of just such a long lazy day of calm weather. And now I'm glad of it, because my brain is mush from the unexpected solar caresses. And my legs are mush from the too-fast ride done with a friend the day before. For the first time this year I have exposed my ankles and I feel giddy.

Backroads Toward Dungevin
Along the main road processions of caravans and trailers flow unhurriedly. Some head toward the seaside caravan park. Others toward the Gliding Club. Their parade is peppered with the occasional car, stuffed with children being driven to football games and egg hunts.

Cycling alongside them gingerly, I am accompanied by honks followed by enthusiastic hand waves from people I know (how did I manage to know so many people here?!), as the sun beats down on us all. And then I turn off the main road, and all signs of life disappear.

Rapeseed Starting to Bloom
On the narrow mountain lanes there are no church bells and no beach goers. No caravans and no carpools. There are no village shops, flaunting traditional Easter closures to capitalise on ice-cream sales. There is no weekday and no weekend. There is no sound, aside from the occasional hum of a distant tractor. There is only an eerie stillness, more noticeable now in the absence of wind.

The rapeseed fields, having blossomed all at once in the week prior, look now like a spillover of sun from the sky. The earth underneath them is scorched and cracked, showing no signs of the water that flooded it only weeks earlier.

Cricket Game in Progress
Half way up a hill I pass a cricket field, the first sign of activity for miles. As men in white move about a whim bush-framed playing field, Binevenagh Mountain looms in background with an almost ludicrous picturesqueness. I do not know the game, but from the vantage point of my bike I can see it involves at least 2 bat-like objects in use at once. I remind myself to look this up.

Just then a ball flies out of the field and lands on the road beside my wheel, and so I stop and pick it up. The man who hops over the fence to retrieve it pauses to thank me, then quizzes me about my comings and goings in the uniquely local manner that feels simultaneously like friendliness and meticulous intelligence-gathering. In the end he squeezes my shoulder and gives me his good wishes, warning me to be careful over the next, sharply winding, downhill stretch of road. I photograph the cricket game and get ready to take off. "Ride softly and carry a big camera, eh?" I hear a laughing voice behind me as I pedal away.

Backroads Toward Dungevin
Along roads like these you can ride with no end and no beginning, because they seem to have none. You can ride tired, drowsy, wobbly legged, half asleep. You can ride all day and not feel the bike or yourself as distinct from what is around you. The road rolls and you can roll along with it. You can roll fast. Or, you can roll softly and carry a big camera. And as you snap that photo you will feel that the still, sundrenched landscape will be here, rolling, with or without you in it.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Cycling Swell

“Why is it I feel so disgusting after cycling? And just look at these, how swollen they are!”

Putting down her emptied water bottle, the woman sticks out her wrists to demonstrate. The flesh is puffy above her gloves, folding over muffin-top style. Mine look similar, as do my ankles over the edges of my socks. For a few minutes the group of us sits there, comparing unattractively swollen body parts.

There is an expectation that cycling will make us sleek and lean, instantaneously. But, in particular when riding long distances, many are alarmed to find themselves bloated and swollen instead. The first time it happened to me in a noticeable way, I went on the internet and found a dazzling array of explanations. It happens from not drinking enough water. It happens from drinking too much water. It happens from overconsumption of calories from energy drinks and snacks. It happens from consuming too few calories. It happens if you eat too many carbs or not enough carbs. It may or may nor happen more if you are a woman. It is due to water retention and will lead to temporary weight gain, followed by weight loss. It is due to cortisol production and will lead to real weight gain, accompanied by other problems. "There is no cause for concern," said the highly qualified doctor of Cyclist A on Forum X when consulted about the symptoms. "There is cause for concern, and you must cut down on cycling," said the equally qualified doctor of Cyclist B on Forum Y. Well then, there's that explained!

Monitoring myself over the past few years on the bike, I see two types of processes at work. One is the temporary bloating I get in the course of a single ride. This tends to happen on rides longer than, say, 50 miles. And it seems absolutely unrelated to the amount of water or calories I consume. Either way, I will get a little puffy, a little bloated - noticeable mainly in the face, ankles and wrists. And, a few hours after the ride is over, it will all go away. The swelling will diminish, then disappear; my skin's tautness will return.

The other is a longer-term process that seems to happen when I do a lot of cycling all at once following a period of taking it easy. After a couple of weeks of doing the miles in earnest the first thing I notice is that my legs get big - so big that I have trouble getting my jeans on. The first year this happened I mistook it for very rapid muscle development. But now I know it is a temporary effect - more like a swelling from the shock of those muscle groups being overworked. In the first instance, my legs bulge out. But if I keep cycling at the same frequency and intensity, their size will eventually diminish. Gradually the swelling will subside and give way to actual muscle tone - hard, sleek and well defined, rather than puffy or bulging. And my jeans will fit again. Last summer this happened over a 2 months period.

Very possibly there is more than one single cause behind the cycling swell. But in any case, it is apparently not unusual. This spring I've just entered the "can't get my jeans on stage" and look forward to getting it over with!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Handbadge

1950s Rudge Sports Roadster
Until recently I had not really considered the meaning of the Rudge headbadge. It was only a couple of days ago when, having spotted a lovely sports roadster with a full-colour version of the emblem, that it hit me. Is this the Red Hand of Ulster?

By now I have grown used to seeing renderings of the up-turned hand on flags and logos - the mystical symbol of Northern Ireland, appropriated, interestingly and confusingly enough, by both Loyalist and Republican groups, as well as by various non-sectarian organisations, clubs and the like. And now here it was on this bicycle.

1950s Rudge Sports Roadster
I scanned my memory for what I recalled of Rudge history, but none of it had to do with Ulster. So I looked into it once again. Founded in Coventry, England by engineer Daniel Rudge, the company later merged with Birmingham-based Whitworth Cycle Co. to become Rudge-Whitworth Cycles (and later motorcycle manufacturer). Nothing geographically close to Northern Ireland here. Neither did the old catalogues seem to offer any explanation. The one thing I did find acknowledging the link was the Rudge Ulster motorbike. That, however, was named after the 1928 Ulster Grand Prix race, won on a Rudge machine - an event which the headbadge precedes.

1950s Rudge Sports Roadster
The Rudge sports roadster distracted me from the hand question with its many nifty features, such as this original Sturmey Archer Dyno Luxe battery pack, mounted on the seat tube.

1950s Rudge Sports Roadster
Wired to the battery pack are the headlight and tail light, also Sturmey Archer branded. During this time period, it seems that manufacturers used dyno hubs, bottle generators and these dry battery packs simultaneously. I've often wondered what determined which method they chose.

1950s Rudge Sports Roadster
Like a missing key to a vintage wheel lock, the definitive answer to the question of the Hand's origin may never be found. The most likely explanation seems to be that the Rudge family (edited to add: actually, the Whitworth family, as it seems the logo came from their side of the Rudge-Whitworth merger) hailed originally from Northern Ireland and used the Red Hand symbol to commemorate this. However I also love Jim Langley's thinking that the symbol meant "hand made." If only we could "talk to the hand" and ask! 

Whatever the origin of the Rudge emblem - rendered in several versions on their headbadges and chainrings - it is a striking symbol, in particular when the bikes are spotted in Northern Ireland. And if anyone is in the market for a vintage Rudge roadster, this one can be had at Gerald Deehan's Vintage and Antique Swap in Limavady. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

What Is the Right Bike for You?

Bellarena Airfield by Brompton
Of all the bike-related discussions I have with readers, with members of the bicycle industry, with other bloggers and with cycling friends, the most common one - the most recurring and inexhaustible - centers on that all-important question: "What is the right bike for me?" What is the perfect bike, the ideal bike? Does such a thing even exist?

Funny enough, over the years this question has gotten more, not less complicated. From city bikes to racing bikes to everything in between, we are plain spoiled for choice in 2014 compared to the way things stood in 2009. There are more off-the-shelf options now than ever in every category and sub-category of bicycles for sport and transport. The custom framebuilding industry has mushroomed. And we are showered with philosophies and slogans - some competing and overlapping - with respect to how to approach cycling in the first place. There are lots of products out there, lots of opinions and information. But how to parse through it all and know what bike is right for you?

After 5 years of running this blog, I still don't know very much about bicycles. But I do have an answer (not THE answer, heavens forbid) to this question that I can offer to those who ask it. It is not an especially profound or epiphonic answer. It is an answer that, quite, frankly, is disappointing in its simplicity. It is an answer so obvious that it is consistently overlooked. Chances are you will find it a bit of a letdown. But here goes anyway:

The right bike for you is the bike you will ride. 

That's it. That is all there is to it. 

The right bike might fit all the criteria put forth, with impeccable logic, by the most revered cycling journal, book, blog, or reviewer - right down to geometry, tire size and accessories. Or it might fit none of them. It might be completely wrong for your use case scenario. It might be ill fitting and improperly accessorised. It might be too fancy for what you use it for, or not fancy enough. It might have features you'll never need, or lack features you do need. Still, if you find yourself riding it all the time, reaching for it when you head out the door, it is the right bike for you. 

The right bike might be the very epitome of your idea of beautiful. The smuttiest of #bikep0rn. The sort of bike you have always pictured yourself upon, gliding down the street as passers-by swoon with admiration and envy. Or it might be nothing of the sort. Even if the bike is lackluster in appearance and totally at odds with the way you see yourself, if you ride it all the time it is the right bike for you. 

The right bike is the bike you ride. 

This does not imply you ought to force yourself to make do with a machine you dislike. Rather, it suggests you keep an open mind about what it really means to like a bicycle in the first place. The litmus test is in the riding.

Is your "dream bike" - the bike that's supposedly perfect in every way - languishing in the hallway while a different one gets ridden? The one that's being ridden is the right bike for you. 

The right bike is the one you will end up riding the heck out of - regardless of whether you, your friends, the staff at your local bike shop, reviewers in your favourite publication, or anonymous commentators on internet forums, agree it is right for you. In short, all I'm saying is...


Thank you, as always, for reading Lovely Bicycle - in particular over this past, rather turbulent year!