Finding the Perfect Bike in Chicago

CRUISE CONTROL: Jeff Ruby tries everything from a hybrid to a recumbent and finds himself in an existential crisis

The Electra Townie bike, Giant Expressway 1 bike, Specialized Crossroads Sport bike, Velorbis Churchill Balloon bike, and Bacchetta Bella bike
Clockwise from top left: The The Electra Townie, Giant Expressway 1, Velorbis Churchill Balloon bike, and Bacchetta Bella. Middle: The Specialized Crossroads Sport
 

For years, I’ve been riding a reliable Trek Antelope that my friend Sweeney gave me. It’s often dormant, but when called into action, the bike picks up where it left off, running with a minimum of upkeep. Kind of like my friendship with Sweeney. Lately, though, the bike has been making unfamiliar noises, channeling an old man who groans whenever he rises. So I put Old Hickory back in the basement and began test-driving a handful of new bicycles on my 11-mile roundtrip lakefront commute.

The author takes a test ride.
The author takes a test ride.

Buying a bicycle is a minefield, because any choice aligns you with a subculture of riders who embrace a particular lifestyle. It reveals who you are, and frankly, I don’t know who to be right now. An urban father of two (going on three): a road bike with trailer capability? Minor Threat fan: BMX freestyler? Commuter with chronic back issues: electric hybrid with a lithium battery?

The options at Kozy’s Cyclery (3712 N. Halsted St.; 773-281-2263) include all of the above, plus retro stuff like Schwinn Hornets and ten-speeds. A salesman put me on a three-speed blood-orange Electra Townie ($550), an unthreatening cruiser with an alloy flatfoot technology frame, a rear coaster brake, and an ergonomic saddle plusher than most movie theatre seats. One online reviewer called the Townie “a La-Z-Boy with wheels.” My ride was pure pleasure—surprisingly fast, with minimal strain. Though after I got a giggly thumbs-up from a little girl in a Dora helmet, I slowed considerably. Commuting time: 52:58. Average speed: 12.5 mph.

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Next was the Giant Expressway 1 ($560), a folding eight-speed aimed at studio apartment dwellers, subway riders, travelers, and those so sick of having their bike stolen they’d rather lug it around in a bag. The bike was so light that, with the wind behind me, the sensation of riding it approximated flying. But the tiny 20-inch wheels rendered every quick turn and stop an adventure, and on the return trip, with the wind in my face, the bike proved a fair-weather friend. The only folks I passed were a family of five bickering on one of those Surrey quadricycles. In the end, I couldn’t figure out how to fold the Expressway, which defeats the purpose of owning one. Commuting time: 53:50. Average speed: 12.3 mph.

Hybrids combine the best elements of road and mountain bikes to produce a streamlined machine that’s good enough for most of us. The 21-speed Specialized Crossroads Sport ($480) has a lightweight aluminum frame and a luxurious dual-density foam seat (code for “Even your fat American ass will fit on it”). I loved this bike’s intuitive gearshift, durable flat-resistant tires, and ergonomic handlebars. A stable and smooth ride, the Crossroads is what my cousin’s ex-boyfriend, a cyclocross racer, calls a “comfortable, functional bike for the neutral masses”—an instrument that enables me to blend in on the lakefront without wrenching my spine into fiery submission. Commuting time: 51:28. Average speed: 12.8 mph.

At the other end of the biking spectrum, Wicker Park’s Copenhagen Cyclery (1375 N. Milwaukee Ave.; 773-456-0024) introduces a Euro sensibility to Chicago. The Danes integrate cykels into every aspect of their lives—commuting, shopping, socializing. If the bike shop’s owner, an architect named Brent Norsman, had his way, everyone on Milwaukee Avenue would be riding a Danish-designed, German-engineered Velorbis Churchill Balloon ($1,585). This hand-built machine is sleek yet robust, with a leather seat, leather handle grips, a leather mud flap, and a generator-powered headlight. It isn’t the fastest bike in the world, but it might be the most stylish. “People test-ride our bicycles and they can’t help but smile,” says Norsman. Tooling around on the Velorbis, whistling and dinging my bell at passersby, I felt as though I were in the one happy scene of a Truffaut film. Then I nearly got pancaked by a Chevy Equinox. Euro sensibility, meet Chicago pavement. Commuting time: 1:17:32. Average speed: 8.5 mph.

When I asked around about where I could find a recumbent bike, the response was brisk and merciless. “The next time I see one of the white-bearded weirdos riding down Elston, I’ll ask,” a friend retorted. More helpful acquaintances pointed me to Rapid Transit (1900 W. North Ave.; 773-227-2288), an eclectic family-owned shop where Chris Stodder, a co-owner, takes the time to teach the recumbent-curious how to ride. My shaky 20-minute lesson took place in the alley behind the shop on a Bacchetta Bella ($1,899), a long-wheelbase touring bike with a seat 22 inches off the ground and the turning radius of an Airbus. “Everyone asks the same questions when they’re considering a recumbent bike,” Stodder said. “Will people laugh at me? Will I be able to go as fast as my friends? Can I take it into traffic without getting killed?” The lesson ended when I crashed into a garbage can.

Too terrified to ride on city streets, I drove the recumbent to the lakefront path and hopped on. After a shaky start, I found the pedaling easy and fast and the comfort level off the charts, thanks mostly to the soft ReCurve seat that pampered my back more than any masseuse could. But I was sitting so low that I accidentally Flintstoned myself to a stop at one point. “On your left,” I called out as I passed someone. “And down here.” The reclining position grew on me, but the constant stares did not. My spin on the Bacchetta is about as close to riding a chopper as I’ll ever get. And as far from it. Commuting time: 1:06:58. Average speed: 9.9 mph.

Ultimately, what each bicycle said about me rang hollow. I’d love to be the cheerful bloke on my Velorbis with the leather satchel and baguette, or the sporty type who takes stairs two at a time with his bike strapped to his back, or even the guy who says, Screw you, I’m comfortable down here on this recumbent and I’m not ashamed! But I can’t. That’s why I’m going with the hybrid. It’s cheap, it’s comfortable, and above all, it’s neutral, which it turns out is paramount to me. The lesson here is obvious: When it comes to modes of transport, I lack the guts to declare anything but anonymity.

 

Photography: (Ruby) Saverio Truglia; (bikes) courtesy of vendors; Location: (top) Kozy’s Cyclery; Photo Assistant: Tim Blokel

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