Wednesday, 24 June 2009

BSNYC Product Review: Electra Amsterdam Original 3i Bicycle

Some of you may recall that, back in April, the New York Times ran an article about Dutch city bikes, surmising that they may be the "first real status symbol" ITTET. The article also went on to state that the Dutch city bike is an alternative for people who do not relate to the "machismo of bike culture," and who do not want to don "kamikaze messenger-wear," whatever that is. While I can certainly see their point, I also could not help noting the irony that in certain ways a Dutch city bike is as impractical for New York City as a "kamikaze messenger" bike, and that the supposed Dutch city bike trend may be as much about a fixie backlash as it is about practicality.

This seemed to anger certain Dutch city bike enthusiasts, who, among other things, accused me of never having ridden a Dutch city bike. This was untrue. I most certainly had ridden a Dutch city bike, though admittedly I did so in a Dutch city and not in New York. Furthermore, it was a long time ago, and I must also confess my memory of the experience is not as clear as it could be--due at least in part, no doubt, to the ready availability of the Wednesday substance in that part of the world. So yes, I suppose I should have confessed that I had not ridden a Dutch city bike in New York City while not under the influence of a controlled substance. Still, I was quite comfortable in my assertion that a large, heavy bicycle is in certain ways less than ideal in a city where street space is extremely limited and many people live in small apartments which often can only be reached by either stuffing oneself into a small elevator or else climbing multiple flights of stairs.

So there's the backstory, and eventually this heady, marijuana-scented cloud of controversy blew over--until I received an email from someone at the Electra Bicycle Company, offering me the opportunity to sample their take on the Dutch city bike, the Amsterdam Original 3i:

At this point, I'm sure Dutch city bike enthusiasts all over the world are practically choking on their toast and marmalade. "That's no Dutch city bike! Whither the generator light, skirt guard, and rack?" And yes, I agree that a bike like this without at least a rack is like a mountain bike without knobby tires. What's the point of a baguette-getter without a bread basket? Well, you certainly can get those things from Electra, but you've got to either buy the higher-end Amsterdam, or else purchase them as aftermarket add-ons. Even so, I have a feeling a true Dutch bike enthusiast would look as askance at even a fully-loaded Electra as a hipster would look at a fixed-gear without "true track" geometry. Still, it had the enclosed drivetrain, and the fenders, and the kickstand, and the upright riding position (and, from the looks of it, the tonnage) so I figured I'd take Electra up on it and see how the other half rides.

Electra had the bike sent to a Manhattan bike shop, so I dispatched an accomplice to pick it up, and together we rode to Brooklyn. My accomplice is a woman and is far from the "kamikaze messenger" type, though she is accustomed to riding a bike with drop bars. The Electra fit her well (she's tall) but she found the bike slow and unwieldy, particularly on the bridge. (The Electra was apparently about as good for climbing as the Steampunk 36er, which we encountered that day.) Her immediate conclusion upon reaching Brooklyn was that this was a country-house-get-the-paper bike and not a city bike. Given her feedback, I figured I should ease into the Electra and get to know its easy-going personality first. As such, the first test to which I subjected it was the Weekend Morning Bagel Run.

Part I: Leisure

Firstly, I'll just say that entering an apartment building with an Electra Amsterdam is about as easy as bringing a drunk home. If there are steps, you've got to drag it up them--and trust me, it does not want to go. Then, if you've got a foyer with double doors, you've got to try to hold both of them open at the same time and wrangle the thing through, sometimes employing your feet. Even if a helpful neighbor arrives on the scene, they're powerless to help you, since there's no way past the bike. Then, once inside, it's either more steps, or it's an elevator, and unless you live in a building with a freight elevator this thing will take up most of it. Forget popping the thing up on the rear wheel, which is standard New York City indoor bike-moving procedure. And of course, once you get the drunk inside, you think your work is done, until the drunk collapses on your floor. Similarly, once you roll the Electra into your apartment, you've got to find someplace to put it. You can lean, say, a road bike against your wall and it will sit there nearly flush--plus you can even lean another road bike against that one and it still won't take up that much space. With the Electra, though, I had no option but to just park it in the middle of the living room floor where it actually interfered with the workings of my TV remote.

Anyway, setting out on the Weekend Morning Bagel Run was the same thing, only in reverse. Finally, though, I got the thing out onto the street, and I settled in behind the cockpit--which, I might add, is extremely roomy:

Next, I ran through the three gears of the Nexus hub:

Now, ordinarily when I "slay" a bagel run, I'll palp either my Ironic Orange Julius Bike or my Scattante, neither of which is set up for a particularly aggressive riding position. Still, the difference between those and the Electra was almost shocking. I felt conspicuous, like Madeline Kahn in the sedan chair in "History of the World Part I." But I was also comfortable--that is until circumstances called for any maneuverability or acceleration, or until my route was obstructed in any way. For example, ordinarily I'd pass a double-parked car like the one below without even thinking about it. However, on the Electra it was daunting to slip through even this gaping space:

Still, though, when the coast was clear I was definitely comfortable--until I reached my first incline. As you can see, the bottom bracket is well forward of the saddle, and between that and the upright bars it's almost impossible to stand up while riding the thing. It's like trying to lean forward on the Tilt-A-Whirl, or like trying to get up out of your chair only to have some bully immediately push you back into it. Eventually you realize you've just got to keep the thing in first gear and lean forward. By the time I summited the overpass I was so proud of myself I immortalized the event in pixels:

Here's the Electra from the front:

And here it is from behind:

Eventually, I made it to the bagel place, where I flipped down the kickstand and tethered the Electra to a parking meter:

As I returned to the Electra with my doughy bounty, I reflected that this would be a perfect bagel-getter, if only there were absolutely no hills and it had a rack or a basket in which to carry the bagels. Still, I was enjoying the bike, so I decided to detour through the park on the return trip. It just so happened that this was the day before the Tour of Brooklyn:

Predictably, everyone was in serious training mode:

Almost immediately, I encountered an elite group of riders:

They dropped me. Then, I encountered a slower chase group:

They also dropped me. Finally, I encountered this kid:

I don't mean to brag, but I totally smoked his ass.

Of course, the fact is that this is not a bike designed for speed, and as such to ride it that way is to fail to appreciate it. And I must admit, despite the fact that the bike was not as maneuverable or as suited to going uphill as I'd like, I did find myself relaxing and noticing my surroundings a bit more. For example, had I been riding by Ironic Orange Julius Bike, I'd never have noticed that someone was having a stoop sale:

Alas, if only the Electra came stock with a rack, perhaps I could have swung by and returned home with someone else's dusty crap--though with the Electra now taking up half my living space I wouldn't have had room for it anyway.

After that it was one more time crossing the overpass:

After which I wrestled the Electra back inside and enjoyed my bagels. In all, it was actually a pleasant experience.

Part II: Business

Of course, it's one thing to ride a couple of miles for some bagels in residential Brooklyn on the weekend when traffic is light. It's quite another to commute by bicycle during rush hour into Manhattan. In my opinion, no bike deserves the "city bike" moniker if it can't be employed successfully in this manner. And while I enjoyed my bagel run, I must say that I fully expected that commuting on the Electra would be a frustrating experience, since the bike's main shortcomings (wide and hill-averse) would no doubt be thrown into sharp relief.

The first hill I encountered was in Prospect Park. I was not exactly climbing in the KOM group with the Electra, though I was hanging solidly in the fanny-pack-and-half-shorts group:

Once the hill was behind me, I settled in and decided to exploit the bike's strength, which is being comfortable. And I was comfortable. The front caliper brake together with the coaster brake mean it's always easy to slow down, leaving your hands free for things like texting and rummaging around in your handbag, which is clearly why the coaster brake is the component of choice for bike salmon and Beautiful Godzillas. Things were going well until I encountered my first traffic jam:

On the IOJB, I would have slithered through this effortlessly. However, on the Electra my only option would have been the sidewalk schluff, and there was no way I was going to demean myself to such a degree. Instead, I was forced to sit there behind a person on a vintage scooter wearing a sport jacket, hoodie, ironic chrome skid-lid, and iPod earbuds. This was doing little to improve my mood--that is, until he tried to pass a car service a little while later and got stuck:

Never has the sound of scraping metal sounded so sweet.

Eventually, I got through the traffic jam and came to the next potential trouble spot, the Manhattan Bridge. I knew all too well that this mild incline could be my undoing. As such, I downshifted and resisted the urge to stand. At first, I was passed by a motley assortment of riders on fixed-gears, mountain bikes, BMXes, and old crappy 10-speeds:

But then to my surprise I noticed that I was actually keeping pace:

At this point, I felt I had finally gotten used to the Electra and understood how to ride it. I no longer felt like Madeline Kahn; instead, I felt like, well, Sean Connery in "Finding Forrester." I also couldn't help feeling that pedestrians were reacting differently to me, and not necessarily in a good way. It may very well be my imagination, but generally when jaywalkers step out in front of me without looking and then suddenly notice me, they give a start. On the Electra, though, it seemed like they looked at me, shrugged, and just kept going. This was probably due to the fact that, in my upright position, I looked less like I was going to hit them than like I was going to hug them. Some people might like that, but personally I prefer jaywalkers to have a little more spring in their step when they see me, so if I were going to make a habit of commuting on the Electra I'd probably have to install some knives on the handlebars to make it seem more menacing.

Speaking of making a habit of commuting on the Electra, while it's not something that I'd want to do it was certainly better than I thought it would be. I'd still choose it over the subway, and I was even able to hang with some bike cops. (Though that's obviously nothing to brag about.) Furthermore, while I felt slower on it, I really wasn't. The truth is my commute only took me a little bit more time than it ordinarily does. This speaks to the greater truth that so much about riding "fast" in the city isn't about speed at all; really, it's more about the style of speed. We've all watched someone blow a light on a track bike, only to catch right back up to him two blocks later. On the Electra you're forced to wait where you might otherwise ride, and you're forced to sit when you might otherwise stand, but really for casual riding it all balances out in the end.

Plus, it's apparently a Rapha magnet, since I locked it up at one point and returned to this:

I guess they want to have little designer bike babies.

That said, in New York City a bike does need to be maneuverable, and that doesn't just mean splitting lanes. It also means bringing it inside, or wheeling it between parked cars to lock it up, or even just finding room to lock it up. There are bikes that take fenders and racks that are still relatively light and maneuverable, so in that sense the Electra is far from an ideal New York City bike.

Still, it did manage to win my accomplice over. While she wasn't crazy about her first ride, she subsequently rode it often, became very attached to it, and now wants to keep it:

(Thanks to Minnehaha for the bag.)

Of course, this is New York City, so while she wants to keep it, she doesn't know where to keep it. Yes, it turns out that here comfort is in fact a bit of a luxury, and practicality is indeed relative.


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