Moving down a gear (Financial Times How to Spend it)

There is little point in attempting to reinvent the wheel. The 130 year old ‘safety bicycle’ is a simple, perfect machine currently enjoying a long overdue renaissance. It’s enticing a new kind of rider onto the road and reinventing a culture that for years was dominated by fluorescent Lycra-clad 18-gear vulgarity. The most popular bikes for the contemporary urban rider are simple, largely single speed models that have infiltrated design stores and fashion shoots, and chime with a sunny, sepia-toned Continental dolce vita. These updated classic frames are as practical as they are beautiful. No fuss, minimal or no gears; get on and ride off.  Forget the aggressive trappings of the Tour de France; think instead of the freewheeling lovers in Truffaut’s Jules et Jim and the romance of cruising in the open air. As James Thomas, product designer and editor of the influential website bicycledesign.net 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. The Pedersen Model T (£1855) – based on Danish designer Mikael Pederson’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, manufacture is now in Denmark, though no less craft-intensive. Its look is thrillingly modernist, a whisper-thin crossbar angling upwards from the saddle at the top of a frame that resembles an artful bow and arrow. It’s also exceedingly comfortable, forcing you to sit pronouncedly upright.

‘Nostalgic bikes are actually a perfect fit for modern life,’ explains Tom Morris of the Islington cycle boutique Bobbin, the self-proclaimed ‘most beautiful bike shop in Britain’. ‘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 their own brand of bikes – constructed by Pointer in Holland – Bobbin stocks the very popular entry-level Pashley, the Poppy (£435).  ‘It has straight handle bars so you sit a little more forward than usual and feel nippy through traffic,’ says Sian Emmison, Tom’s business partner and wife. ‘Also, it comes in blush pink and has cream tyres which is rather delicious.’

British heritage brand Pashley is one of the most renowned manufacturers of classic town bikes. ‘We’ve found that, all of a sudden, we’ve been “doing retro” for 84 years,’ says Pashley MD Adrian Mills. ‘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 amongst the most popular at Adeline Adeline, a boutique-styled store that opened in New York’s Tribeca in May, aimed primarily at Manhattan businesswomen. It’s the first New York space to stock classic European frames. Owner Julie Hirschfield rides a Pashley herself, which she likes for its ‘stability and comfort’, but appreciates that some of the lighter-framed Abici bikes she stocks – 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 ($2000), a piston rather than chain-driven model with no exposed greased elements. Alongside this, there are carbon belt-driven bikes entering the market; unlike chains, the belts do not need to be changed every 30-50km. These new bikes are for people who don’t do maintenance.

In the window of Push, a new cycle store on London’s Newington Green, there is a latte-coloured Bianchi Pista Via Brera (£699) with cork grips and a light 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 Ciaran. ‘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 would offer the same quality of service that you’d get if you go 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 Julie Hirschfield. Adeline Adeline have adopted a system first pioneered by Bobbin in London – the appointment-only, personalised consultation and test drive. As Sian at Bobbin says ‘It doesn’t have to be about talking techy. Sometimes it can just be about getting the right red bike to match your red jacket.’ Customers try out what looks good, and buy according to what feels right.

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 80s,’ 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% male, now we have more women customers than men.’ The Brompton, the award-winning 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 ‘cycling 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 Bobbin, Adeline Adeline, Push and Velorution zeitgeist. They are more likely to own Dutch, upright, town bikes, not 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 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 continue to stock several versions of the original (£495-£615). 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 and 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, editor of the online style magazine Jocks and Nerds. He’s been working on a documentary project called LondonBikeStyle, shooting portraits of Londoners with their bikes. It’s a personal passion for Ross. He 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. 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.’ One of Ross’s photo subjects is Sir Paul Smith, who has collaborated on two bike frames with Mercian and a sold-out limited edition striped saddle with Kashimax of Tokyo. Smith is a cycle devotee. ‘My love of cycling started when I was 11,’ he says. ‘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 it’s been in over 100 years, something that has prompted Giorgio Armani and Chanel to collaborate on long sold-out limited edition frames. Filmmaker and journalist Mikael Colville-Andersen set up the website Copenhagen Cycle Chic in early 2007, documenting riders going about their business 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 proved to get a lot of attention on Flickr; so many 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 Sian at Bobbin says, ‘buying bikes the same way they buy shoes, on impulse.’ And the accessories are just as desirable, from polka dot pannier bags to helmets disguised as bowler hats and stylish jackets cut from fabric that blends traditional tweed with high visibility reflective material. More than anything, the cycle revolution is happening because the bikes are beautiful and they fit with their owners’ lifestyles. People who never saw themselves as cyclists are being seduced by the healthy, eco-conscious ‘two wheels better’ ethos. As Mikael Colville-Andersen says: ‘Go and open your closet. It’s already filled with cycling clothes.’

Adeline Adeline, 147 Reade Street, New York NY 10003 (001 212 227 1150; www.adelineadeline.com)

Bobbin, 397 St John Street, London EC1V 4LD (020 7837 3370; www.bobbinbicycles.co.uk)

Look Mum No Hands, 49 Old Street, London EC1 9HX (020 7253 1025; www.lookmumnohands.com)

Pedersen Manufaktur, Kalle Kalkhoff, Donnerschweer Straße 45, 26123 Oldenburg (00 49 441 88 50 389; http://www.pedersen.info)

Push, 35c Newington Green, London N16 9PR (020 7249 1351; http://www.pushcycles.com)

Velorution, 18 Great Titchfield Street, London W1W 8BD (020 7637 4004; www.velorution.biz)

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2 Responses to “Moving down a gear (Financial Times How to Spend it)”

  1. Great piece, and thanks for the mention of Bicycle Design. The link is wrong in this post though. It should be http://bicycledesign.net , not bikedesign.net.

  2. Many apologies – I’ve amended it. The FT version didn’t have the error, but also didn’t have the hyperlink for some reason…

    http://www.howtospendit.com/#/articles/2412-city-cycling-classic-bikes

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