Practical Transportation

Practical Transportation

A couple of years ago I was asked to write about the bikes created by a bunch of toney design teams for the Oregon Manifest. My comments were pointed and not, shall we say, the warmest. I chafe when people who have zero experience producing a real bike in the real world decide to grace our industry with their out-of-the-box wisdom. In my assessment of the designs, I laid out what I think everyone ought to be working toward in the pursuit of the ideal utility bike.

The rider’s needs:

  1. The bike needs to be practical. It can’t be too heavy, needs to be easy to lock and needs to be able to carry loads appropriate to your life.
  2. The bike must be efficient. It needs to allow you to arrive at a destination without looking like you just walked out of a gym. An electric assist isn’t a bad idea.
  3. The bike must fit. It needs to be comfortable to pedal around and your weight must be distributed adequately so that it handles well in turns.

The production needs:

  1. The bike must be easy to produce. It needs to be quick to weld together in a factory setting.
  2. The bike must be reliable. It needs parts that will last through daily usage, and should be widely available.
  3. The bike must use no more tubing than is necessary. More tubing means more weight, more welds, more to align, more time spent in production and more cost.
  4. The bike must be no more expensive than is necessary. Getting millions of people on utility bikes means making sure they are as affordable as possible.
  5. The bike must fit as many people as possible. The more one-size-fits-all a bike can be, the easier production is and the easier stock control and planning are for the retailer.

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Clearly, adding an electric assist to a city bike will make it considerably more expensive. In that, it won’t be a great answer for everyone. Most people just need something relatively straightforward, right? Then I ran across Detroit Bikes.

Detroit Bikes are made in (wait for it) Detroit. Yes, nearly every component comes from Asia, but that’s a function of a reality in which Shimano makes many of the better components for this category and tire production stopped being an American thing well before Steven Spielberg made “Jaws.” That said, the frame uses American-made steel tubing welded together in Detroit’s factory.

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I suggested they send a women’s bike (the Type B) partly as a challenge. I wanted to see if whoever is designing the bikes really knows how those old Raleigh 3-speeds handle. Years ago I worked for a shop that would sell used 3-speeds to students of the five colleges in our area each fall. (We’d buy them back at the end of the school year and sell them to the next incoming class.) 

Those bikes had a very short effective top tube. I could sit bolt upright on one and negotiate the hallways of a hoarder’s home. It’s hard to emphasize how important balance is to bikes of this sort. To be perceived as safe and sufficiently maneuverable, they must possess the ability to stay upright at only 2 mph.

With the Detroit Type B, the handling was familiar as my mother’s perfume. Poise is a term we don’t often use to describe a bike’s handling, but that’s exactly how I’d characterize the Type B. I can get to downtown on this thing without breaking a sweat and it’s given my wife a chance to have fun riding bikes with Mini-Shred without pulling out her road bike.

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The front hand brake and coaster brake made the bikes easy to control and those 3-speed hubs offer a much wider gear range than most people understand. The Type B is a classic 3-speed made with 21st-century parts. 

The welding was excellent journeyman work. Every component on the bike, from the Shimano 3-speed to the dual-pivot front brake was solid. Not sexy, but perfectly functional. With fenders and a rear rack, it’s ready for daily duty. Detroit even offers a whole series of boxes and baskets to make the bike a workhorse.

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Detroit is building a dealer base and it’s something they should succeed at. These bikes are utterly nonthreatening to what Specialized, Giant and Cannondale are doing. Trek, with its recent acquisition of Electra, might not want these on the floors of their shops though. However, for those who don’t live near an existing retailer, it’s possible to order direct and have the bike shipped to your home. The amount of subsequent assembly required is low. I had the bike put together in a half hour.

The Type A (men’s bikes) and Type B each go for $699. Some people will suffer a coronary at that price, but a big box $199 special isn’t really a bike in my opinion. You’re taking your life in your hands, son.

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Detroits are one-size, one-color bikes, which goes a long way to helping control inventory. Even with only two bikes, Detroit believes it can accommodate everyone from 5′ 3″ to 6′ 3″. If you want to start a transportation revolution and make the bike the cornerstone, it must be as easy to maintain as it is to use, and this bike will need very little other than chain lube and air. And if you’re concerned about bringing jobs that went overseas back to the U.S., this is one way to do it.

Final thought: Some old dogs know all the good tricks.

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14 comments

  1. miles archer

    I rode a bike not too different than that in Copenhagen a few years ago. Without hills, three speeds was plenty. Wouldn’t want to ride around Berkeley or SF without more gears though.

    To make cycling an attractive option, we’d need to solve the bike theft problem. In Copenhagen and Amsterdam, bikes have minimal locks. When I go somewhere in the SF area, I need to lug a heavy ulock with me or I’ll be walking home.

  2. Cold Water

    8 speed derailleur systems have better range and save a pound or two, not just in weight but the wallet. You need those grams for performance, specifically the performance of common urban tasks like getting your bike up stairs, either in hilly areas or a walkup apartment with groceries in your panniers.

    As a former gearhub user, I don’t see the point without a chaincase. You don’t want to service it much, yet this thing needs lube, a maintenance topic that has come to fisticuffs. Derailleurs might be some work but the clinic reads like a shampoo bottle: locate barrel, turn counter clockwise one click, try again. Repeat if necessary.

  3. Chris

    My wife rides a 3-speed Linus. I’ve ridden it myself a few times and enjoyed the hell out of it. When we ride as a family and I’m following her on my cross bike, I kinda feel like a jerk. She looks so much more elegant sitting up right on that steel framed, olive green bike.

  4. Nik

    I’m not sure why this would be a better choice than a Specialized Crossroads. My wife used to have one. For $500, it comes in different sizes and has a 3×8 or 3×9 drivetrain (I don’t remember which, and it doesn’t matter). The Crossroads doesn’t have a cargo rack, but you can buy a pretty nice rack with the $300 difference in price. For some people, the shifter hub may be better, but at least make it an 8-speed hub. I really don’t see how the $800 price is justified.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      I’m not going to argue that it’s a better choice. It’s a different choice. For some, American-made matters. And while I think derailleur drivetrains are super-reliable, my time in shops has taught me nothing is as fool-proof as an internally geared three-speed. For some, that simplicity matters as well.

    2. David Feldman

      Yes–current hybrids and rigid ATB’s have good wide range gears and much more user-friendly shifting than they sometimes get credit for. There’s an unreasoning fear of derailleurs in some circles these days.

    3. Nik

      I can definitely understand that some people greatly prefer a bike with a shifter hub: you can have a chain guard, and never have to worry about putting a chainring tattoo on your pants. But for $800, there should be room in the budget for a Shimano 7 or 8-speed shifter hub.

  5. walper

    I have this bike too and personally I find the frame flexes way too much, I wouldn’t buy it again. It needs to be stiffer, although I wouldn’t know if this flaw would put the rider at risk.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Frame flex is an issue pretty inherent to all mixte-type frames. I didn’t really discuss that in the review, largely because I don’t see these as performance bikes. It could be said that if you’re riding a bike like this hard enough that you’re detecting flex, you might be on the wrong bike. It’s also worth noting that a rider’s ability to detect frame flex in a mixte has been sensitized by riding modern road bikes. The flex wasn’t as alarming when most of us were riding Columbus SL and Reynolds 531.

  6. Nik

    It’s nice to have fenders designed and installed by the manufacturer, but why is the front fender so short ? Your feet and lower legs are going to get soaked when you’re riding this in the rain. To be really effective, a front fender should almost reach the ground. (Obviously, a fender that long is going to hit things, which is why there is usually a rubber fender flap at the very bottom, and there are a few inches of ground clearance)

  7. David Feldman

    Great bikes if the gearing works for the terrain. An internal hub shouldn’t be a fetish item that defines a “city” or “commuting” bike. Derailleurs shouldn’t be ignored in building a city bike especially now with cassettes that can give as large as a 42 tooth low gear. Most west coast American cities aren’t anywhere near flat. The best commuting bikes can’t be designed with what I call “delusions of Amsterdam.”

  8. Sally ploe

    I had the pleasure of touring Detroit Bikes factory located on the west side. What a great team of passionate hardworking Detroiters taking pride in manufacturing. I bought the Type A and I love it. The first time I sat on it I felt like I was meeting an old friend.

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