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.
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.
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.
The 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?
As 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.