Monday, January 14, 2008

Riding the Rex

I have been riding the Rex three-speed to my office and back- weather permitting- for about a year and a half now, and the experience has afforded me the opportunity to develop some well formulated thoughts about what a town bike should look and function like.

While the Rex is not a high quality bicycle by any measure, it has some features that make it especially well suited to the task. The combination of properly sized frame and large wheels are a vast improvement over the standard 23” frame and 26” wheels of a typical English three-speed for a tall guy like me.

Rule No.1: Buy a bicycle that fits- if it doesn’t fit, you will hate it, and it will languish in your garage. A bicycle that fits is one with a frame that is the tallest that you can straddle comfortably. Grant Peterson’s perspective on this subject is entertaining and well written, so I won’t try to paraphrase. Read Grant Peterson on bicycle fit here.

The “North Road” handlebars, and the upright riding position that they provide are just the ticket for town riding. The riding position is comfortable and relaxed- it takes the weight of your body off of your hands and back on your “sit bones” where it belongs. The upright body posture puts your head balanced naturally above the shoulders, making it much easier to see, and be aware of, what is going on around you. The “North Road” pattern is not my favorite handlebar shape, but definitely the right general idea for a town bike.

The somewhat relaxed geometry of the Rex’s frame, and generous fork rake make this bike very stable at slow speeds. A racing bike is designed to go fast, but a town bike needs to handle well at a crawl, and with a load. My commute covers a wide variety of road surfaces: smooth pavement, boardwalk, cobblestones, railroad tracks, and gravel. The relatively wide tires ( about 29mm) handle these conditions well enough- certainly better than super-skinny road bike tires. Somewhere between the low rolling resistance of a 23mm racing tire, and the stability of a fat 45mm balloon tire, there is a sweet spot. I think 32mm is about the optimum width for a town bike tire.

My first stop on my way to my office is the Peet’s shop for 16 oz. of high-test. To accommodate my caffeine addiction, I have fitted the Rex with a handlebar-mounted bottle cage from the early ‘50s. I have a stainless steel tumbler with a rubber outer surface that is a nice tight fit in the cage. Sounds like a good solution, but it doesn’t work very well. If you think about it, the handlebar is the one place on a bicycle where vibration is most amplified- not where you want to put a cup of coffee. That’s probably why modern bottle cages are mounted as close to the bottom bracket as possible.

I love the Wrights saddle on my Rex. It measures 8 ¼” across at the widest point- a full 40 mm wider than the Brooks B-17- and the leather a bit thinner and softer. It was comfortable to sit on from the start, and was sporting permanent indentations from my “sit bones” after a week of riding. I have always been a big fan of English (or French) leather saddles. Like a pair of fine bench-made leather shoes, once broken in, they are as comfortable as your favorite slippers, and last forever. The coil springs on the Wrights saddle squeak, and I’m not sure that they add that much in the way of comfort. I will try the new Brooks B68 next; an updated version of the venerable B66, sans coil springs and with single rails to fit a modern micro-adjustable seat post.

The Carradice saddlebag that came with the Rex is cavernous. It looks like a “Nelson Longflap” without the side pockets. It is big enough to carry a few tools, my cotton anorak, a cable lock, LED headlight, and a snack with ample room left over for a bottle of wine and sundries from that stop at the grocery store on the way home. At 16” wide, I have to swing my leg wide to mount and dismount. A pair of expanding panniers sized to fit a file folder and a laptop would be a lot more useful for transporting work materials to my office and back.

The long fenders do the job that they are designed for- keep your feet and butt dry. The hockey-stick chain guard, on the other hand, is only partially effective. It keeps my pants cuffs from getting caught between the chain and the chainring, but doesn’t protect them from getting grease marks from the chain at the bottom of the chainring. My notion of a proper town bike is one that I can ride in a suit and dress shoes when I need full-on business attire. The rather twee color scheme is not one that I would have chosen, but is probably something of a theft deterrent. The one uncool accessory that I have learned to really appreciate is the kickstand. Try loading and unloading a saddlebag while balancing a bike with one foot, and you will see the wisdom in this oft maligned feature. In a perfect world, the frame would have been purpose designed to accept a kickstand, rather than use the stay clamp mounting method. Esge’s twin leg kickstand looks like a thoughtful improvement over the more common single leg version, but at nearly $50 a pop, it is hard to justify the cost.

There are a couple of things not to like on this bike. The steel rims squeal like a stuck pig while braking, and the long-reach steel calipers don’t provide quite enough stopping power. An integrated lighting system would have been a thoughtful addition. I have some cheap battery powered LED lights set up on this bike that work well enough for low light evening riding around town- not enough illumination for night riding in heavy traffic. The LED lighting elements are super energy efficient, but I don’t like the idea of using batteries to power them.

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