Prelude. Cars can be habit-forming. I lazily slid into the All-American habit of driving my car to work as I navigated a series of changes in my career, domicile and personal life. So when I received the email from Commute by Bike asking for someone to review a bike, I thought, Hey, that might be just the thing to get you back in the saddle. As it turns out, I was the lucky one selected to receive a City Bicycle Company steel frame urban single speed to assemble, ride and review.
The Company. I had never heard of City Bicycle Company before undertaking this project. This outfit is not to be confused with All-City Bikes or State Bicycle Company. Its the outgrowth of a bicycle repair shop at UC Davis that started in a dorm room (like Dell Computer), grew into a garage (like HP and Apple) and then grew into something bigger still by connecting with International Bike Co of China. Velocapitalism is alive and well in California it seems, and CBC is an excellent example of the spirit.
Fine, you say, Bikes Mean Business, blah blah blah. There are lots of bicycle start-ups, not to mention a thriving artisanal sector celebrated each year at NAHBS. Why should we care if a bike comes from a start-up like City Bicycle or a giant like, well Giant? What really matters is the bike right?
The Bike. So what about this bike?
Despite my quibbles, which I will detail below, I am highly impressed. The fact that all I can do is quibble is a high compliment to the Chicago and City Bicycle Company in general. Kind of like if you bought a Chinese guitar on eBay, and the only thing you could really say about it is that the upper register isnt quite as bright as your classic Martin D-24. The bottom line here is that for not much more than the price of a big box bicycle shaped object, you get a real bike that is worthy of customization and should give you years of daily use and abuse.
The model I reviewed, the Chicago Type One is red a deep, lustrous, near blood-red. I like red. My Basso is red and its one of my favorite bikes to ride. The red paint looks like its powder coated, and durable, but Ill admit I didnt put it to the test. Im not rough on my bikes as a rule, but Id hazard a guess this finish will stand up well. It has a decidedly deep and lustrous look and feel to it.
The rich red gloss contrasts well with the gloss black finish on the fork, brake, hubs and crank. The spokes and rims are also black, and the name City Bicycle Co. is nicely inscribed on the top tube near the seatpost, and even on the hubs which City advertises as their own.
The welds are smooth and even, lending a sense of solidity. Strictly from the standpoint of appearances, I rate the City Bicycle Co. Type 1 a success.
The Build For your entertainment, I shot a little bit of video to demonstrate the build-up process. Out of the box, youre already at least 80% there. You only need to mount the front wheel, the handlebars and the brake lever. Then just add pedals, slide the seatpost into seat tube (with some grease!), tighten the clamps, put some air in the tires and go riding. You should probably double check the rear wheel, which comes pre-mounted. Mine was a little off center, so I loosened the 15mm nuts, wiggled it a little, and re-tightened. Then I adjusted the thumbscrews to help keep it in position. In theory, I think you can loosen the nuts a little, then adjust wheel alignment with the thumbscrews, but they were a little stiff, so I got the wheel where I wanted it with the axle nuts and then adjusted the thumbscrews to match.
The only difficulty I had was with the brake lever. Try as I might, I could not get the clamp to close tightly enough on the handlebar to allow the screw to thread neatly into the other half of the clamp.
As a result, I think I probably stripped the threads somewhat. I think I have figured out why. Judging from the pictures on the website, City mounts the lever close in to the stem, hipster style, whereas I tried to mount mine out near the grips. I think the diameter of the bars is enough smaller near the stem to make a difference.
By the way, City includes the tools you need to build the bike! A set of allen wrenches in a convenient pocket knife style handle and a stamped steel spanner with all the necessary sizes for assembly are right there in the box. Nice touch City Bicycle! I did use my own 15mm box wrench for a little extra torque, but you can really put the bike together completely with the tools provided. The only thing I would suggest City should consider adding would be some grease for the seatpost and the pedal threads. Maybe a small shot of Phil Wood grease in a little packet like the mustard and ketchup you get a deli.
The Ride. This bike visually says Im cool. Ride me and youll be cool too! The aerodynamic downtube, the sharply contrasting red with black accents, and the straight fork all scream speed.
This bike demands my constant attention in a way that my older and more conventional bikes do not. I really think I got the wrong size, and that has seriously affected my experience with this bike. There is a sense of apprehension that I could easily go over the bars if I were to brake too suddenly or hit a pothole in a moment of distraction. It comes down to geometry. The relatively short top tube, the head tube angle and minimal fork rake combine to put my center of mass much farther forward than I find comfortable.
Now that may not be all bad, because in todays urban cycling environment, its probably safer to be focused on riding, rather than lulled into complacency by a cushy, relaxed-geometry cruiser bike that practically dares you to ride no-hands while flapping your arms like a bird (come on, you know youve done it too). No, this bike must be steered and consciously ridden, or you co
uld find yourself munching asphalt and trying to sort your tooth fragments out of the undissolved road salt crystals that still line the travel lanes this time of year.
Despite all the pretensions to being ready for the velodrome (flip-flop hub, track style drop outs, etc.), the Chicago did not (or I should say does not yet) feel like a fast bike to me. Its light enough (as steel bikes go) at around 22 lbs, and the bearings all felt quite smooth, but still I had a nagging sense of sluggishness that belied the race-ready appearance of the Chicago.
Maybe the bearings need to break-in more. Despite their smoothness, they may still be tight. Im pretty sensitive to anything that detracts from the sense that all of my exertion is translating into forward motion. And of course, I started riding this bike after a long period with very little saddle time, so it could also be that my posterior bilateral gruntoids (the muscles that get you moving) have atrophied more than I care to admit.
In fairness to the Chicago, I distinctly remember a similar sensation the first time I rode my Basso Gap, a big and expensive step up from my Team Fuji. Secretly hoping it might magically transform me from a Cat 5 to an elite pro prospect, I soon realized that the laws of physics and physiology are pretty much oblivious to the fine distinctions between midline Suntour and Campy Super Record. And so it may be with the Chicago.
Another issue that I had with the Chicago is the front brake. I rode the Chicago almost exclusively in freewheel mode, rather than true fixie style. That left all the stopping to the single front brake. The short trigger style brake lever, coupled with the smooth new rim surface, left me wishing for a little more stopping power. That would not be an issue in fixed gear mode, where a little back pressure on the pedals would more than make up for the less-than-arresting front brake setup.
City Bicycle also offers a rear brake option. I would recommend it, especially to anyone who intends to freewheel. If I were going to ride this bike as my primary commuter, I would do that and probably switch to levers with a little more, um, leverage.
Here again, I must qualify my criticism. The last thing you want on a bike with this geometry is an overaggressive front brake setup. I think City Bicycle knows this and their choice of components reflects it.
I did not find the Chicago to be a particularly comfortable bike to ride, but here again, it could have a lot to do with the size. Trying not to put too much weight on the bars, for the reasons I discussed, meant more weight on the saddle, and although there is nothing wrong with the stock saddle, Im much more used to the comfy conforming flex of a well broken-in Brooks B17.
Its perhaps unfair even to mention this, because Brooks makes saddles that cost more than this entire bike, so it should be no surprise that there is room for improvement. I might also have experimented with larger tires and lower pressures, but that would really be beyond the scope of this review. Another change I would probably make would be to swap the straight bars that shipped with the Chicago to either traditional drop bars or cow-horns. Chicago offers both as options, but my bike came with the straight bars.
I find that straight bars transmit a lot more shock to my shoulders and elbows than either cow-horns or drop bars, and this is true regardless of the bikes geometry, so its not really a criticism, more of a recommendation. But if you like straight bars for their simplicity and general badass appearance, then by all means, order those.
The Skinny. To sum it all up, I didnt fall in love with this bike, but its probably not the bikes fault. We just werent made for one another. When you look at the total package, the value of the Chicago or any of its stablemates is undeniable. You get a beautiful, durable, reliable and functional bike for about what some people spend at Starbucks in a month. You can customize it to your taste, knowing that your money wont be wasted.
City Bicycle Company has endowed this practical conveyance with style and attitude without wasting your money on anything that does not contribute directly to its essential function, which is moving you forward with minimal fuss.
Tom Bowden is an occasional bike commuter from Richmond VA, a corporate lawyer with an MBA. He is also a board member and past Chairman of Bike Virginia, and a board member and Vice President of Virginia Bicycling Federation. Tom practices corporate law in his own firm.