This review would not be complete without a tip of the helmet to the guy without whom it would not be nearly as interesting. To wit: the one and only Joe Breeze.
If not for Joe perhaps this would have been entitled "My impressions of the Advanced Sports Model U106 Utility Bicycle" instead of "Experiencing the Breezer Finesse." Not as catchy.
Joe Breeze is an original — truly one of the founders of the sport of mountain biking, along with the likes of Gary Fisher (referenced in my earlier post), Tom Ritchey, Charly Kelly and Charlie Cunningham. You can read all about it here, but what stands out about Joe Breeze is he did not stop with mountain biking; he has continued to innovate and create bikes that encourage everyone, not just athletes and daredevils, to get back on their bikes. So it's appropriate here on this site which is at the forefront of promoting everyday bike riding for everyday people and everyday purposes to pay homage to his legacy and his ongoing work. The Breezer Finesse is the latest expression of Joe's commitment to the goal of putting people back on two wheels.
I've been riding the Breezer Finesse for about two months now. I picked up the Finesse from BunnyHop Bike Shop, local Breezer dealer one afternoon in mid-April. Luke, proprietor of BunnyHop, did an excellent job setting it up, and warned me about over-tightening the seatpost, because it is quite easy to crunch a carbon seatpost if you just go by feel. Duly cautioned, we set the post at what seemed like a good position, and off I went.
My sense is that Luke, like me, has fairly traditional taste in bicycles, so I often look to him for suggestions on how to preserve the classic essence of my Raleigh Sprite while improving on its performance or function. So when Luke told me that he rode the bike home the night before, not expecting to like it much, I wasn't surprised. But, to his surprise, he did like it, a lot — so with that send off, I was prepared for a positive experience.
The specs on this rig are most impressive. Out of the box, it sports the following components — all highly desirable and top drawer:
- 8 Speed Shimano Alfine internal hub: Silent and predictable; fast and light shifting action.
- Shimano Alfine hydraulic disc brakes: Powerful but smoothly modulated — you can stop with your pinkies.
- Ritchey Carbon Seat Post: What can you say about a seatpost? Looks great. Hasn't slipped or broken. Presumably a good bit lighter than aluminum.
- Carbon fork with stand-offs for front rack (or cantilever brakes I suppose): Beefy and a thoughtful touch.
- "Fastback" Rack: Clever, but limited in function.
- "Joe Bars": More useful than I thought they would be!
- Schwalbe Marathon Racer Tires: 700X35mm. Reflective!
- Shimano Alfine crank: Muscular in appearance.
- Rear chain guard for sprocket: Nice touch. Not likely to throw the chain on this setup, but makes it a little harder to clean the teeth.
- Shimano Alfine Dynamo Hub: silent and smooth, but you can definitely feel the drag when the lights are on, less so when they are off. Unfortunately, I only discovered the "off" switch a few days ago.
- Ritchey Adjustable Stem: Beautifully forged with a deeply embossed logo and looks bulletproof.
- Plush Velo Seat: Sleek but disappointing.
- Fenders with integrated wiring: Nifty, but will they stand the test of time?
- Eccentric Bottom Bracket: Cool adjustable mechanism that you will probably never need to mess with at all.
- Cane Creek Headset: Nicely integrated and oversized.
- Busch & Muller Lumotec IQ Fly Senso Plus light set: With auto and stand modes. These lights achieve full brightness at even low speeds, and the stand feature keeps them glowing for a bit even when you stop for a light — an excellent safety feature for generator powered lights.
This Finesse is a nice metalflake "Midnight Blue" with silver accents. The paint is flawless, and there is a nice fade on the fork from blue to clear to reveal the carbon pattern. I guess the point is If you have a carbon fork, you want everyone to be able to see it instead of asking, Hey — is that a carbon fork?
The blue and silver theme of the frame is nicely complemented by the high gloss black hubs, black rims and spokes. Continuing the theme, the bars, headset, crank and stem are also black. This gives the bike an overall serious look to it — almost like a police bike, but without the tazer mounted on the downtube.
The welds are beefy and neat enough — maybe not up to the standards of a custom Merlin TI frame, but very clean and even. Everything fits together well. A solid build, as one might expect.
So How Does it Ride?
Like a Breeze(r) of course! Solid and smooth — no rattles from the fenders or cables. Everything is snugly attached and tucked out of the way. I would not say that the Finesse is quick — it's not a lightweight bike after all. Even with the carbon seatpost and fork, it weighs in at about 30.5 pounds. That's actually a few ounces heavier than my Sprite. (Take off the "Joe Bars" and they're probably dead even.) However, the wide choice of ratios in the Alfine hub never left me feeling like I had to mash the cranks to get moving. You can smoothly accelerate with pretty light pedal pressure under any circumstances and the shifting is so easy that I found myself sometimes going right through all eight gears and back between stoplights. Whereas, with the Sprite, I tend to stay in a given gear longer because shifting is a little bit uncertain and sometimes leads to slippage due to sloppy indexing.
I've never ridden anything that shifts as easily as this bike, including my Campy Ergo Litespeed Tachyon. Riding up to a stop light, it's become second nature to rapidly click down anywhere from two to seven speeds to prepare for my launch at the green. The lowest gear is really low — Spiderman low, like the next lower gear would have to be a webshooter. You can confidently load this bike up and know that whatever hills you face, you can conquer them, with a little patience.
There is, however, a sense, when running the lights (as I have done for virtually all my riding on this bike) that the bike does not "carry" its speed once you get to a certain cadence. There is just the slightest feeling of drag or loss which I attribute to the generator hub. I'm not an electrical engineer, but I think what happens is the faster you go, the more power the generator produces, or said differently, absorbs. Only so much of that can go into the lights and the rest becomes heat somewhere in the circuit.
Now if there were a way to open the circuit when the lights are at maximum brightness and the capacitor or battery that powers the lights when you stop was fully charged, maybe that could be avoided, but it's not a big deal. I felt it most on the Virginia Capital Trail Foundation's Cap to Cap 50-Miler, in trying to keep up with my roadie companions. Between my high-drag khakis and lack of toe clips, plus the weight penalty and the dyno-drag, I managed to give myself a mild case of chondromalacia in my right knee and still got dropped (once or twice). I want to emphasize this is not the Breezer's fault. It's the fault of my RAAM ego contending with my AARP body. Possibly the seat could have been better adjusted — I don't know. I think it's a credit to the Finesse that I even tried to maintain that pace.
I got a lot of compliments on this bike, people notice it. Its not-quite-a-mountain-bike, not-quite-a-road-bike, definitely-not-a-comfort-bike appearance is eye-catching and provokes curiosity. I found myself spontaneously touting all the neat design features and components of the Finesse at the slightest provocation.
There’s really nothing to complain about with the Finesse, but I will say this: in comparison to the Sprite, it has a much stiffer and harsher ride. This is probably a combination of the oversize aluminum tubing, coupled with the carbon fork. I thought it might be the wheelbase, but it turns out the Breezer has a 42-inch wheelbase, (axle to axle) whereas my classic Raleigh is a "spritely" 41 inches. Under most circumstances, this stiffness really doesn’t make a difference, but on the rough streets of old Manchester, with its numerous potholes, uneven surfaces and railroad crossings, I can definitely feel it. It's not a negative, just a factor for your consideration. If you want plush, buy a Pashley.
Another thing to consider is the rear rack. The standard rack mounts to the seat tube cluster and the cantilever brake bosses, Very sleek, and racy looking — but there is nothing obvious to hook your panniers to at the bottom to keep them snugly attached and not flapping around. I inquired about this and JT, the Adventure Sport rep, explained that the rack is really only designed to carry trunk bags.
That's a little incongruous because the bike is really a very capable long distance touring machine as well as a top drawer commuter. Adventure happily sent me a standard rack which easily mounted to the same eyelets as the fender stays, and that solved the problem — (pretty much anyway, but not quite for the Hyalite suit-carrying panniers I also evaluated while trying out the Breezer — more on that in the next review.) This is not a big deal — Rumor has it that Campfire Cycling is on the verge of introducing a clever little bit of hardware that will be a perfect solution).
Okay — so I like the bike. I like most bikes. That is well known So it's not very helpful for me to just leave it at that. Here are the things I would do a little differently, if my last name was Breeze.
First, I'd put a Brooks saddle on it. Maybe one with titanium rails, in keeping with the carbon fork and seatpost. I know it's fashionable and maybe a little trite to go on and on about Brooks saddles these days, but honestly, I've got enough miles on enough different saddles in varying conditions to speak my mind on this, and there is really no comparison. A nice black B17 titanium would fit right in on this bike, and yes, it might raise the price a bit. Your heiny will pay you back with interest.
Next, I might try to do something about the chain stays. They are so beefy that when you add their diameter to the clearance for the 35mm tires, the rear triangle gets a little wide. I sometimes found my heels hitting the stays, especially in my clunky Timberland street shoes or my sandals. If I rode to work in my Diadoras, this would probably not be an issue, but then again, this is a commuter bike, so that's not a relevant solution.
Which brings me to the pedals. They are much better suited to commuting than the quills that came on the Raleigh Classic Roadster, but to my mind they are still a little dainty. Nothing like a pair of big, square, studded BMX platforms for a commuter, if you ask me. And with larger pedals, who knows, the clearance issue might simply go away. Pedals are so easy to change anyway, and some might even go ahead and put SPDs, Eggbeaters or Frogs on a bike like this, so it's not so much a complaint as a suggestion to those who might consider the Finesse. Be prepared to customize a little — it's worth it, especially since so much of the stuff you might normally have to add is already there.
Finally — from the curmudgeonly point of view of someone who, like Joe Breeze, is approaching the beginning of his seventh decade with all that that entails — I wondered, why in the world does a commuter bike like this need a carbon seatpost, let alone a fancy one from Tom Ritchey? What does the carbon fork really add?
And what about those vestigial aero bars — the so-called Joe Bars? Well, I've figured it out, after reading Joe's bio. Joe wants to get everybody back on bikes, but not everyone's a racer. Just like not everyone who buys a Porsche races, rallies or competes in gymkhanas. And just like so many other Dads out there who don't race anymore or never did, I nonetheless find myself drawn to everyday machines that have at least a little pizzazz or racing DNA. That's why I will never buy a bike with a step-through frame.
Kind of like the guy who knows he needs a station wagon, but dammit, I don't care how many cup holders it's got, it's at least gonna have fuel injection and Bilstein shocks! (For safety and reliability of course!)
A guy's gotta take a stand at some point and draw the line against the relentless onslaught of strict utilitarianism! The Breezer speaks to that part of my psyche — the part of my brain that throbs a little when I think of first time I rode my Litespeed, or the first time I time-trialed with my aero bars. It's a fact: The older I get the faster I was. And so it is with the Finesse. It may actually be built more for comfort than for speed, but it says to anyone who knows anything about bikes, Hey, this guy knows a wingnut from a quick release lever; he may be riding a "hybrid" to work in his street clothes — but don't write him off so fast, he might just reach deep into his muscle memory and outsprint you to the next stoplight if you don't give him some respect.
So if you have to pass someone on a Finesse on your commute or out on the road, just give a quick nod of knowing appreciation as you pull through — it might just save you some embarrassment.
And thanks Joe!
The Breezer Finesse sells for $1,999 USD MSRP (but is available for $1,399.99 at Commuter Bike Store).