Electra Townie 7D review

I said I’d never buy a bike with an aluminum frame again. I was wrong. I really have to learn how foolish it is to make all-or-nothing statements.

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Image used without permission

Until writing this, I believe I only had one other post about bicycles which focused on steel frames. For a forward leaning, aggressive riding position I maintain that steel is better than aluminum because it absorbs harsh road conditions. It’s worth the weight penalty for a nicer ride if you can’t afford full carbon fiber. So how did I wind up buying an aluminum bike again? Commuting to work.

When I was in the Air Guard, we had lockers, showers and changing rooms that made bicycle commuting easy and free exercise. Driving to work the first and last days of the work week allowed for carrying uniforms, etc. so the rest of the week could be bicycled. Ride to work, arrive hot and sweaty, shower, freshen up, pull on uniform, go to work.

Now that I’m a civilian, cycling into work presents different challenges. I don’t wear a uniform anymore so I can’t get by with fresh undergarments alone. While I might be able to shower at work, I don’t want my clothes wrinkled from being packed in a bag. So I needed something I could ride in work attire and keep my clothes clean. I also carry my laptop, meals, and any required books for the semester back and forth from home to the office. I prefer to carry my Brooks Brothers duffel than a backpack because I’m an adult and I don’t want to wear a backpack while cycling.

WorkCycles Fr8. Image used w/o permission.

WorkCycles Fr8. Image used w/o permission.

What I really wanted was a Dutch bike like an Omafiet. Unfortunately, good imported Dutch bikes are terribly expensive. Considering my job has me living in Fargo for now, I only ride half the year, which make it difficult to justify that expense. Electra makes the Amsterdam model that copies Dutch styling, but reports on its build quality have been mixed and they don’t make a step-through frame large enough for me. For whatever reason, Americans seem to think step-throughs are for women and men should have a cross-member high enough to risk very personal injury. The high cross member makes sense for frame rigidity on a more aggressive bike, but is completely illogical for relaxed riding.

I’d played around on Electra Townies before, and they always seemed like perfectly adequate bikes. Nice, easy to ride, decent handling, etc. I hemmed and hawed for quite a while and instead kept trying to fix my single speed’s ergonomics but eventually I had to relent. Finding handlebar risers to allow an upright riding position was an impossible task, and the steel frame that was fun for short rides had no braze-ons for luggage racks to make it useful over longer distances. The local bike shop didn’t stock models with internal hubs (or even know they were available), so I bought the “bird in the hand”- a moss metallic 7D pictured above. Because if I recall correctly, it was less than $500.

IMG_4297The ideal I was chasing was something like a Dutch bike, or the bikes used by American bike-sharing programs. A comfortable, upright riding position. A good chain guard to protect my shoe laces and/or pant legs. A maintenance-free internal hub for gear changes. Fenders, to keep my clothes clean if riding through damp conditions. A dynamo hub to run lights without the need for batteries. A strong and wide front rack to carry realistic luggage. Seriously, what do people carry on those narrow rear bicycle racks? A single bottle of wine?

IMG_0740As it happens, the only thing I really needed was the comfortable riding position. Almost everything else could be fixed, adjusted, or added later. The Townie is much more comfortable than my single speed ever was and I love riding it. It’s just an easy bike to roll around on. We added fenders, a small taillight on the seat post, a Burley trailer hitch, and ordered a wide front rack like a porteur would have. The world is my oyster on this thing. Originally, the rack had a raised rim, creating the effect of a very shallow basket. I took that part off so I could carry wider or longer cargo on a more stable base. The raised rim either compromised even support by lifting oversize cargo up on its edge, or could even risk damaging the cargo with that edge’s pressure once it was strapped down. That rack and the center of gravity are a good bit forward of the axle, so it’s a little awkward to move when walking and kickstand no longer works when the rack is laden with cargo. That aside, it’s easy riding, allows for much wider cargo than a silly narrow rear rack, and because it’s in front of me I can actually see it rather than wonder if it’s coming off-balance behind me. Some ratcheting straps may work better for securing loads than the elastic net  I currently use. If my duffle is particularly full it can impede the handlebar mounted light a tad, so under-rack mounted lights may be in my future. Otherwise, I couldn’t recommend this solution highly enough. It’s the only sensible way I can see to achieve my goal.

The bike itself is pleasant and comfortable. The combination of seat, tires, and riding geometry make the aluminum frame a non-issue when it comes to harshness of ride. The relaxed position makes hills a bit of a challenge, and the gearing wouldn’t be of much use in San Francisco. Luckily, North Dakota is so flat you can watch your dog run away for days. The 7D means it has a derailleur, which requires a little advance shifting for hills, but that and some momentum make everything here easy enough to handle without leaving the saddle.

My understanding is that the high and low gear ratios of the 3i are roughly equivalent with the derailleur models; the greater number simply gives the rider more options between. The internal hubs are also much more expensive. The 3i is $100 more than the 7D, and the 8i doubles the price of the bike! While I like the clean lines and low maintenance of an internal hub, I have no regrets getting the derailleur. Price and availability worked in it’s favor, and the extra gears aren’t a necessity but they’re convenient. A brisk commute to work or a relaxing ride with my wife are two different speeds, entirely.

My top speed seems to be about 14-15 miles per hour during my commute. Taking back roads through neighborhoods lets me bypass Fargo’s overabundance of traffic lights. The bike handles well, rides nicely and brakes sufficiently. I was a little hesitant of the color. I try to avoid anything reminiscent of the military and thought it might be confused for olive green, but the metallic flake paint job looks brilliant in sunlight. My photos don’t do it justice. About the only other modification I might try is to reverse the stem, or goose neck, to bring the handlebars back a few inches and let me sit even more upright. It might further compromise the weight on the rack, though. We’ll see. In the meantime, I can tow my son effortlessly and he seems to enjoy the ride, as well.

 

Since buying my bike, Electra has added an available EQ package that includes paint-matched alloy fenders and a hub dynamo to power front and rear lights. The $60 up-charge on internal hub models is a good deal, but the $110 required for a derailleur EQ seems excessive. If money were no object, today I’d buy a Balloon 3i EQ in brown metallic. That takes care of fenders, lights and gets you kevlar tires. Add a steel front rack from CETMA and you’d have a stylish gentleman’s city bike to rival most anybody.

On the Wrist- Seiko Recraft SNKN01

I’ve been itching for a cushion case watch for a few years now, but unable to justify $9,000 (USD) of scratch for a Panerai PAM00320. Luckily, Seiko brought out a handsome example with their Recraft collection and my lovely wife gifted me with one for Christmas.

IMG_0404I love my TAG, still lust after the Panerai, look fondly on Tissot, and may yet try to finagle a Montblanc Timewalker UTC into my collection, but let’s make one thing clear: Seiko is not a brand to dismiss. Sure, they may make too many models and/or variants, and keeping track of them all can be a mess. But amidst all that clutter are some real gems of innovation, a history of horological contribution including a long list of world firsts, and in-house movement manufacture. Even the Watch Snob regards Seiko well.

IMG_0409The cushion case makes listing the dimensions a bit awkward. The crystal covering the face is a conventional circle, and 38.5 mm in diameter. Because the case resembles a bulging square, I hope the rest of dimensions are adequately descriptive. The case (with crystal) is 11.6 mm thick, and measures 51mm diagonally. It is 50.2 mm from lug to lug, 42.1 mm across the “flats” of the case at their widest point, and 47.7 mm if you include the crown, which is 6mm in diameter. The leather strap is 24mm wide and 4mm thick.

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It’s a mechanical movement, so less accurate than quartz but a whole lot more interesting and fun. This is a watch you buy for love of gizmology. For the soft, rapid ticking like the titles of a 60 Minutes episode. My particular watch runs a bit fast- I’d guess it gains about a minute per week. It is also a “non-hacking” movement, which means the second hand keeps ticking away when you have the crown pulled out on its stem to adjust the time and it cannot be hacked to sync perfectly with an outside clock. The day-date function works well, and is set by pulling the crown out one click to its first position. Rotating the crown one direction advances the date, and the other direction advances the days, which can be set to either English or Spanish on my model. They alternate Sun-Dom-Mon-Lun-Tues-Mar-Wed-Mie, etc. Some models of Seiko apparently alternate day name and Roman numeral, which would have been cool but c’est la vie. It takes roughly three hours (from midnight to 3 am) for the day to transition through the alternate language and back to your setting of choice.

IMG_0408So what’s it like to wear? Not as heavy as I would have thought, considering how much bigger it was in person than I expected. Because of how large it is, and flat on the bottom, I have to ensure the strap is well tight or it has a tendency to roll toward my pinky. That stainless steel case can put a lot of painful pressure on my wrist bones if that happens! And speaking of making sure the strap is tight, remember when I listed it as 4mm thick? Yeah, this thing took about two solid weeks before it could start to be considered broken in. They didn’t chintz out on the bracelet and I really like that. The whole package feels very solid.

Looking at the details of the design, this definitely strikes me as a retro watch. It looks like something out of the late sixties or more likely early seventies. I like the indexes to mark the hours rather than numerals- they’re raised, cut very precisely, and polished. One detail I didn’t care for are the white boxes visible underneath the indexes at 6, 9, and 12, but I figure this is historically accurate to how it would have been made “back in the day” and it strikes me as charming now. As with my 5, I wish Seiko would find a more elegant solution than printing black text on the underside glass since it’s mostly redundant information, but it’s not the end of the world since one rarely tends to gaze at the back of a watch.

This particular model is currently selling for under $150 USD on Amazon, but there are other face and case color options, along with other bracelets, too. There are also other styles within the Recraft Series, all with a distinctly retro vibe. If you long for the era of feathered hair and Roger Moore as James Bond, I highly recommend them.

Retro 51 Tornado refill hack

If you’re a pen geek, and you do a search for “Retro 51 refill hack”, the best and only usable result you’ll find is for a Pilot Hi-Tec-C. While it’s a really good looking result, it simply involves too much work to get there. Cutting the refill down to the right size, then taping a false shoulder onto the refill at the right point to hold the spring because the diameter is too thin, and potentially having to do those steps multiple times? Ugh. Here’s what I did, instead.

Click on a photo for slideshow view and commentary, and remember that switching to a gel ink means writing on glossy paper will always be messier than an oil-based ballpoint.

I’ve settled on the Pilot Precise V5 RT. A quick note, if you do this you must make sure your Pilot Precise V5 has an RT suffix. The RT is what means it’s retractable. I say this for anyone who decides to order a bunch of these pens from an online retailer. I hope you find this useful!

Seiko 5

The problem with being a watch geek is two-fold. First, it completely invalidates anything I say if I feel like teasing my wife about how many shoes she owns. Second, mechanical watches tend to be much more expensive than their quartz counterparts.

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Enter the Seiko 5.

We’ll just have to keep hoping that link remains active, because Seiko’s website is fairly awful. (So is Casio’s site for G-Shock watches, with no feature filter to help you through hundreds of styles.) As a matter of fact, if you just go to Seiko.com (USA, anyhow), you can’t even find any mention of the Seiko 5’s existence. But a quick Google search led me to the microsite for the 5 and it’s 50th anniversary. 1963 was a very busy year, with James Bond movies also celebrating their 50th, “I have a dream”, and JFK’s assassination- but I digress. Let’s talk about the watch.

My favorite thing about a mechanical watch is the rapid ticking, like the opening of a 60 Minutes episode, as the second hand makes several discrete jumps between each second rather than the inelegant full second clunk of quartz.

While all mechanical watches I’m aware of share that attribute, the Seiko 5 is unique in a few ways. First is the extremely low cost. MSRP on the watch is $185 USD, but they can be found on Amazon.com for $50-60 all day long. The movement is made in Malaysia and I’m guessing that’s for cost savings. The crystal watch face is a lower grade of Seiko’s proprietary “hardlex” which is a mineral crystal, just not sapphire, to keep the price low. Second is the crown, which leads into how the 5 was named.

  1. Automatic winding
  2. Day/date displayed in a single window
  3. Water resistance
  4. Recessed crown at the 4 o’clock position
  5. Durable case and bracelet

These five attributes were unique for the time and, considering these watches were devised and cost effective before the Quartz Crisis/Revolution took place, I can’t help but imagine they were the ultimate sports watch for a five to seven year window of time.

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My initial impression of the 5 was shock at how small it is. Honestly, it’s about the same size as most watches I grew up with, but the fashion in recent years for men’s watches has been a larger size (which I think is played out and they’re getting smaller again). But since 37mm doesn’t mean much to me without comparison, here are some photos.

US quarter, the 5, and Kinetic Dad gave me when I graduated high school. Click to embiggen.

Right to left: US quarter, the 5, and Seiko Kinetic my Dad gave me in ’97.

The quarter is 24.11 millimeters. All measurements were taken with Mitutoyo digimatic calipers. There were various decimals but most measurements were within 0.15 mm so I rounded to the nearest whole number with three exceptions.

TAG Heuer Grand Carrera 17, Seiko 5, Oakley Holeshot

Right to left: TAG Heuer Grand Carrera 17, Seiko 5, and Oakley Holeshot.

For the face I measured the diameter of the crystal and you can see on the Oakley that’s not truly representative of the clock face part of the display. (The Oakley’s odd case also skews those figures.) The cases’ diameters were measured based on their radius (again, see the Oakley, who claim 47.5mm), then again including crown, and finally from bracelet stem-to-stem across the face. That explained, the watch sizes are as follows:

  • Seiko 5 – 29mm face, 37mm case, 38.5mm w/crown, & 43mm stems.
  • Kinetic – 29mm face, 38mm case, 40mm w/crown, & 43mm stems.
  • TAG – 37mm face, 43mm case, 47mm w/crown, & 50mm stems.
  • Oakley – 31.5mm face, 45mm case, 49.8mm w/crown, & 50mm stems.

For thickness, the 5 is 10.5mm, Kinetic is 10.3, TAG is 15, and Oakley is 11.8. A US mint quarter is 1.7mm for comparison. I can’t imagine wearing anything larger than the TAG without it being ridiculous and tacky (cough, cough, most Diesel and Oakley), but it also feels just about perfect. It’s been so long since I’ve worn my Kinetic that going back to a smaller size felt like I was wearing a ladies watch at first, but that feeling passed quickly and now it’s like the perfect daily wear timepiece for a jeans and t-shirt guy.

The look (as if you can’t see the face from the pictures) is simple and relatively clean. I like the geometric design, and the hands are large enough that the luminous material is legible in the dark on all three. The case is stainless steel, but in a flat finish. The watch is small enough that this is a non-issue anyway, but the crown being recessed and at 4 o’clock precludes any rubbing or irritation on the back of the wearer’s hand. While the case of the watch is water resistant, I have no desire to stress the cloth band and do not wear this watch in the shower.

The exhibition case back is really just to prove this is a mechanical watch as you watch the balance wheel cycle back and forth. Otherwise, the movement isn’t that fancy and doesn’t have any jeweling on internal parts. The text printed on the back crystal is disappointing, but you’re almost never going to be looking at it.

Excess strap is held in place by two metal loops, one captured within the weave of the band and one sliding free to adjust as you need.

It’s about as basic a watch as you can get, save for the day/date complication. And of course, because it’s mechanical it won’t be quite as accurate as quartz. But who cares about that when we all have mobile phones in our pockets anyway? For just slightly more than a Timex Weekender (an excellent pick for quartz and style) you can own a mechanical watch. No more batteries to die or change. Granted, a mechanical watch should get serviced every now and again to keep it within tolerances, but wouldn’t you love to brag to your friends that your watch is EMP proof (even if it’s not strictly true)?

The short of it is this: in my limited writing on watches I’ve never recommended one. My TAG is too pricey to say “everybody should own one” and the Oakley looks too dude-bro frat boy. As of the date I write this, I’m on a WordPress.com site with no Amazon affiliate link. That means I gain nothing when I tell you this, gentle reader: if you’re interested in watches at all, you owe it to yourself to pick up a Seiko 5. The black model is fifty bucks and free shipping if you’re Prime member. The holidays are over, so you’re free to buy things for yourself again without ruining somebody’s gift plan. (And big, BIG thanks to my wonderful wife for tolerating and contributing to my watch obsession!)

There is quite literally no reason to not own one.

Gillette Super Speed & Super Thin

After my failed Super-Max experiment, a buddy of mine in Nepal sent me enough Gillette Super Thin blades to keep me supplied for at least six months. And I’m going to use every last one of them.

Gillette_SuperThinThe blades shaved easily, with no pulling or irritation, and I didn’t nick myself once. I missed a little bit of stubble running the length of my jaw on both sides of my face, but I suspect that’s due to using the twist-to-open Super Speed razor pictured above. It’s not my usual razor, and I’d bet dropping one of these blades into my trusty Gillette Tech (or practicing more with the Super Speed) will shave my mug baby smooth all over.

♣ Blades vs. Cartridges ♣

Some quick thoughts on shaving with blades vs. cartridges, and I promise not to get weird and preachy trying to convert you away from that multi-bladed environment destroying expensive landfiller made of baby hate, you handsome devil. All kidding aside, it’s insanely cheaper to use blades than, say, Fusion cartridges and does produce significantly less waste for the environmentally concerned… But none of that is really a powerful enough motivator to make the switch. A man switches to retro DE razors and blades because he doesn’t mind taking five to ten percent longer during his shave, and wants to fulfill the experience of shaving like his dad or granddad. To that end, it works beautifully.

Good blades are hard to find in the United States, though. We mostly use cartridges here, so that’s mostly what’s sold. The easiest way to get decent blades here is to order Feather blades from Amazon.com. I’m guessing Americans have enough expendable income to spend “excessively” on speed and convenience. I’ve always found the best blades when traveling overseas, and it seems most online specialty retailers import their blades as well. Gillette doesn’t even list blades on their USA website. Just something to be aware of.

♣ Classic vs. Outdated ♣

I started shaving with a Gillette Sensor, which they don’t make anymore. They still make the cartridges, but buying new from “the best a man can get” means a Mach 3 or a Fusion these days. That’s fine, but I bought I replaced a Mach 3 that I had with a Fusion because of slick marketing and six months later they released the Fusion Power! Battery powered manual razors, vibrating features, different colors and trim levels… What’s next? Flashlights? MP3 players? The capitalist in me understands, but as a customer I’m fed up.

My Super Speed is a flare tipped model, probably from the 1950’s, and works flawlessly. No pitting or rust, it’s like new. I don’t know how old my Tech is, but it’s even simpler and the patent dates back to 1938. And they both still work wonderfully.

Shave like a man. Like your dad or maybe your grandpa did. You won’t regret it.

 

Not all blades are equal

SuperMaxBlades

These are the worst blades I have ever used. Click to embiggen.

I switched to an old fashioned double-edged safety razor shortly after I began using shaving creams and a brush instead of canned gels and what-not. A good friend of mine sent me two vintage Gillettes- a Tech and a Super Speed. The Tech quickly became my razor for every shave, replacing my new-fangled Fusion and it’s five or six blade cartridges. But one of the things the old-timey shavers debate is which blades do the best job actually shaving you. The oft-touted cost savings of a blade vs. a cartridge don’t amount to much if the shave is lousy.

I’ve never thought much about the great razor debate until now. Discussions about esoteric Gillette blades no longer available in the U.S. vs. Feather and dozens of others has always struck me as a bit obsessive and something that couldn’t possibly make that big a difference until now. The Super-Max Super Stainless pictured above gave me the worst shave I can recall having, more pulling at my whiskers than cutting. It was painful, awful, and left patches of whiskers I dared not try to remove again. Specifically, the hairs high on my lip and directly below my nostrils. And that’s before it cut off a small chunk of my cupid’s bow, the edge of the upper lip directly below the philtral dimple. I’ve never felt discomfort from shaving, but this blade caused outright pain.

Super-Max’s website claims they’re made from the “Highest Quality Swedish steel”, but my package was labeled as being made in India if I recall correctly. Maybe they were counterfeit, I don’t know. I don’t even remember where I got them. All I know is they were awful and I threw away the rest of the package and swapped in one of the hundreds of Silver Blue I bought overseas. Ah…. much better.

So the blades DO make a difference. Guess it’s time to find a blade sampler pack for sale from a specialist site. Maybe one of these from Royal Shave will do the trick…

19 Reasons to Not Abandon Handwriting

This pretty much says it all.