The near-ideal Wellington commuting bike

Cross-posted from Stephen’s blog.

For some years I’ve been riding a bike to work most days for various reasons: economic, environmental, health and personal contrariness. I have been riding an elderly Specialized mountain bike with street tires, which I got second hand on Trade Me. It has served me well, but I was starting to tire of it for a few reasons:

  • it was ugly;
  • the frame was a bit small and I couldn’t get the seat and the handlebars into a configuration that was both comfortable and safe;
  • every now and then the derailleurs would shit themselves and eat a chain in the middle of town, because emergency manoeuvres are a fact of life in inner-city cycling;
  • the cleats and bike shoes that seemed like a good idea for the Mt Vic ascent were a pain.

The Cycling in Wellington blog drew my attention to the fact that there is a whole other kind of bike out there which is intended to be ridden by everyday people at an everyday pace to do everyday things, and that such bikes can be attractive and suitable for a chap in a tweed jacket. I don’t race, I’m not into mountain biking and neither a road bike nor a mountain bike nor any in-between hybrid appeals like a bike that’s meant for utility travel. I’d been thinking about 8 speed internal hubs for a while, but following the trail from Cycling in Wellington to Lovely Bike and Velo Ideale and Mamachari made a few ideas coaelesce in my head.

So, let me present my new pride and joy. It is a Linus Roadster customised for me by David at Velo Ideale. I asked for various features and tweaks which I thought would make it best suited to my needs, and now that I’ve been riding it for a week, I’m pleased to say I feel really good about my choices. It has been a pleasure to deal with David too.

I chose the Roadster as a base because they have the old-school look I was after, they are cheap-ish, and Velo-Ideale had a great picture on their site of an already modified one which inspired me. One day I might drop several grand at once on a Pashley, but not yet. My judgement has been validated because I get unsolicited compliments on my stylish bike.

The Shimano Nexus Red Band 8 speed hub is marvellous. Unless and until something mechanically terrible happens, I cannot see myself ever going back to derailleurs. The gear range is such that I can climb from Cambridge Terrace up to Alexandra Road by way of Marjoribanks, Hawker, Palliser and Thane as easily as I could on the 21 speed mountain bike, but I can crank along Evans Bay parade at high speed. I can shift when stopped. Shifting is very smooth, so smooth in fact that between some gears you can only tell because of the change in resistance to pedalling. Supposedly internal gear hubs are not quite as efficient as derailleurs, but I cannot detect this. And on the other hand, the chain is always perfectly aligned between the chainring and the rear cog, unlike on a derailleur system. Since there’s no front derailleur, the guard plate next to the chainring is big and so while I generally use a reflective trouser clip for visibility, there’s no need to worry about getting my pants caught in the chain any more.  The unit is sealed and can’t get crap in it, and probably won’t need servicing for 2 or 3 years. This is probably the most expensive component in the whole bike, and the most unusual one, but it is definitely what makes it well-suited to local conditions.

The big wheels give a smooth ride. White sidewall tyres just look good with a black frame. I’m keeping an eye out for cream ones though.

I asked for toe clips. They have white straps to go with the white sidewalls. They haven’t taken long to get used to, and they really help with a sustained climb like my ride home from work. I’ve discovered that my most formal shoes actually make the best bike shoes, as they have stiff leather soles. It’s very nice to wear proper shoes to work, be secure in the pedals all the way, and not have to change shoes.

The handlebars are flipped because that’s how the cool kids had them in the 80s and I just like it. Generally, I find the grip angle easier on my wrists. I am really appreciating a more upright riding posture. I can see more. My lower back is grateful. The only niggle is that my little handlebar mirror doesn’t have a stalk and I can’t position it usefully on these handlebars, and I haven’t found a mirror that’s stylish and suitable yet. I do miss the mirror. On the other hand, in an upright position it’s easier to turn my head and look over my shoulder.

We all know New Zealand is a pluvial country, so while I’ve escaped riding in the wet so far in the last couple of weeks, it’s bound to happen. I’m looking foward to having proper mudguards protect my trousers.

The Brooks saddle is an extravagance which I chose purely for aesthetic reasons, but it turns out to be comfortable. I expect it will get even better as I wear it in.

As a whole, I’m finding my new bicycle very pleasant to ride. It’s stable – I can go no hands easily. It’s very smooth and quiet, though the mudguards create a little extra noise on a rough surface. It’s especially nice to ride slowly. It is a relaxing bike, and I look forward to taking it out every day. From a feature point of view, I can’t think what I would add to this bike that could make it better for its main job of getting me to work and back. (I already have really good lights from the old bike so adding built in ones would have been taking it too far.) And it cost a bit more than a year’s worth of bus fares.

Stephen Judd

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23 thoughts on “The near-ideal Wellington commuting bike

  1. Su Yin

    I second the internal gear hubs (I have a Shimano Alfine on mine). As much as I like the speed and lightness of my road bike, it can’t best the quick take-off from traffic lights and is quiet stealthty — almost ninja like. Perfect city bike set up.

    In addition, I have opted for disc brakes. Another quiet feature and also nearly maintenance-free

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  2. That is one seriously nice bike. Interesting to hear you can make it up Hawker Street with no trouble, although I suspect that you, like Megan, have Legs Of Steel. And I too have a soft spot for flipped handlebars. By far the most stylish, just something about them.

    The Gazelle at Burke’s that I have my eye on comes with the 8-speed hub as standard, but I’m coveting the 14-speed Rohloff. If anything can get me and a 20kg bike up a Wellington hill, that can. And YES to disc brakes – these hills freak me in the wet!

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    1. Dunno about Legs of Steel, but it’s true, I probably have a bit more grunt than the average bear these days, if only because I do it every day. Three years ago it was harder than it is now. But the point is, if you can manage a slope on a 21 speed mountain bike, my experience now is that you’ll be fine with one of these hubs too.

      I do fancy disc brakes, but they conflict with my aesthetic. I think too that they’re difficult to fit to rear wheels with internal gear hubs? Anyway, the current brakes are good enough, though they could be better.

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      1. With disk brakes, you can’t retrofit them to an existing hub gear – you need to have a hub that’s designed for disks. Plus, the frame needs to have disk tabs. I know that Shimano do disk-specific versions of their internal hubs (they’re slowly pitching them as MTB kit).

        The thing about gears and the abiilty to get up hills is, it’s the range, and where you start it off from. Modern derailleur systems have loads of gears mainly so you can keep pedalling at an even cadence while changing gears. The range provided by an average 21-speed MTB is about 400% (that is, the absolute largest gear is about 4 times the size of the smallest); in comparison, the Shimano Nexus 8 gives about a 300% range (and the Rohloff, 500%). And within that it’s reasonably easy to set the gearing up so you have a low enough gear to get up the hills – since you’re unlikely to be doing 70kph downhills on this, you don’t need the really high gears.

        This discussion has made me curious to ride up Hawker St to see how steep it is.

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  3. Andrew

    The Nexus 8 isn’t too bad up the hills. I used to ride a Ridgeback Nemesis (with hub brakes and gears) up the Ngaio gorge without much problem. I was less pleased with the hub brakes, aweful things, made the bike extremely heavy, and made puncture repairs very difficult. Hub Gears + Disc brakes would be win. I used to have a bike with the red stripe version (the premium hub gear), which was far better than the standard version. Hub gears are slightly less efficient than a CLEAN, LUBRICATED derailleur, but how many bikes fit that description after a week of ownership!

    I do have a few cautions about hub gears though. I’m not sure of the current design, but they can make wheel removal difficult. Also, I used to find that my wheel regularly moved forward, decreasing chain tension, and occasionally making the chain fall off. My hub gears fatally choked on a recent ride home (after 5 years of little maintenance), and the look of fear on the bike mechanics face was precious. Very few people know how to repair these things, and “low maintenance” generally means “expensive to fix”. I ended up buying an ex-rental mountain bike instead.

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    1. The version I have doesn’t have hub brakes, so no worries there. I must admit I hadn’t considered long term maintenance very deeply. It does look like something the amateur might not want to do themselves. I’d be interested if anyone has local bike mechanic recommendations.

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    2. I’ve heard one should change the oil once a year. Apparently this is generally not difficult, a matter of pulling out a plug and refilling or something. No first hand experience though. Sheldon Brown will have something.

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      1. Simon Kennett

        Sweet looking bike! Need a bit of black reflective tape to finish it off?

        The handlebar stem will look much nicer two inches lower (when you fully embrace the retro-chic aesthetic and flip the handlebars up the right way). When you’re ready, of course ; )
        Flipping them upsidedown was the early wannabe racer’s way of getting their Sports Roadster ready for a local race, To go straight to dropped bars was considered a bit cocky in the 1930s. To commute with dropped bars was deemed particularly pretentious (unless you had a championship title or two to back it up).

        I borrowed a MTB with a Nexus 8-speed hub (and disc brakes) for a week recently. Jakub, the guy I was riding with had the same set-up. He’s a mechanic from an Avanti shop in Auckland. Anyways, he mentioned something about changing the oil every several hundred km, I think. He also said that it’s best to swap out the cheap factory oil when the bike is first put together.

        WRT the gear range, it’s not quite as wide as a modern MTB, but is still pretty damn impressive. and you could always downsize the front chainring if you lived up Bolton St.

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      2. Simon Kennett

        Would you like me to leave some for you to pick up from the Greater Wellington Regional Council from desk (142 Wakefield St)?

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      3. Simon Kennett

        I’ll leave a couple of big fat strips in an envelope at reception at 2pm. Fell free to chop them up further.

        I recomment on the rear stays at 7 o’clock and 5 o’clock, and the front forks at 2 o’clock and 10 o’clock.

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  4. Edward

    Alternative internal ‘gear’ hubs to consider are the NuVinci 360, which doesn’t have gears so much as balls(!!); I’m awaiting arrival of one to fit to our big heavy ‘bakfiets’; I blew up the SRAM P5 which came with the bike on the hills here in Karori. They do weigh 2500g though and apparently not as efficient as an Alfine or Rohlhoff, but I’m going for strength and reliability. Way cheaper than a Rohlhoff though. The bakfiets is a monster heavy bike anyway, so this hub won’t make any difference from a weight point of view.

    http://www.fallbrooktech.com/nuvinci.asp

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  5. James

    I recently switched from a racer to a more commute-y bike. Not so retro chic as that Linus, but pretty well suited to Wellington.

    It’s from NZ(ish) brand Bauer. It has an 8 speed Alfine hub and hydraulic disc brakes. The chain is tensioned at the bottom bracket, so it’s easy to get the wheels out for punctures. And I’ve fitted Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres, so hopefully those punctures will be few and far between. It has flat bars for an upright position, although I am tempted to fit some of those slightly ‘moustache’ shaped ones.

    The early signs are that it’s only a couple of km/h slower than the racer for a given amount of effort. The gear range is enough to zoom along on the flat when there’s a tailwind, or to comfortably climb Ngauranga Gorge or Nicholson Road bridleway when there’s a headwind.

    And best of all, it cost just under a year’s bus tickets. http://www.bauerbikes.co.nz/metropolis.html

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  6. your bike is beautiful, but i do think my folding dahon is better, as i can fold it up and get on the bus/train/taxi everytime it snows/hails/sleets… been loving that feature recently.

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    1. Worth pointing out that I’ve taken my bike on the J’ville trains before (suffered a major mechanical problem right by the train station, so it seemed only sensible). You can put bikes in the guards’ van at the end of the carriage.

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  7. Yeah, I guess I’ve got a commitment to ride in all weather all the way, or not at all. I’d be more interested in a folding bike if I thought I could manage the extended hill climb on the way home. But I can see how for someone with slightly different needs a folding bike would be exactly right.

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