Friday, August 27, 2010

Romance on Two Wheels

With its stark, white walls and concrete floors, Rolling Orange, a new store in Cobble Hill, looks more like an art gallery than your typical New York bike shop. The lofty space houses just a few dozen retro-look bicycles, showcased like sculptures and priced to match. And the customers aren't your typical gear heads. When one stylish gent approaches shop manager Christine Brinkhorst with a burning question—"These are Dutch bicycles, right?"—he is delighted with the Amsterdam native's elegantly accented reply: "Oh yes, these are very Dutch."
Used to be, only fitness buffs, fixed-gear freaks and nerdy racing addicts went out of their way to spend a fortune on bicycles and gear. Now, New Yorkers have their pick of high-end stores offering stylish, low-tech European city bikes for that four-block trek to the café.
Bryan Derballa for The Wall Street Journal
Above, Else de Schiffart, one of the Dutch employees at Rolling Orange in Cobble Hill.
There's suddenly lots of demand for old-fashioned steel bicycles with simple gears and cushy seats. In the last three years, the city built 200 miles of bike paths, and the effort to create sane riding conditions has encouraged a new breed of cyclist: the dandy in the three-piece suit; the lady decked out in a skirt and heels. David Schmidt, a Dutch bike importer who has sold at local flea markets and plans to open a New York store next year (his Seattle shop features an espresso cafe), says his customers are novice cyclists who just want a simple ride.
But they also want style. Charlie McCorkell, a long-time cycling advocate who owns Bicycle Habitat in Soho, says he's seeing more customers who favor form over function—they want a beautiful bicycle that completes their romantic vision of themselves: "It's Sean Connery in 'Finding Forrester,' riding his three-speed around."
The look comes at a stiff price. At Rolling Orange, models with old-fashioned chain guards and fenders run $825 to $1800, and cargo bikes top out at $3,400. A rustic wood crate ("reminiscent of simpler times") for the back rack sells for $100; $160 buys a helmet with a brimmed fabric cover designed to disguise that you're, well, wearing a bike helmet.
Bryan Derballa for The Wall Street Journal
Manny Howard takes his children for a test ride in a De Fietsfabriek cargo bike.
Adeline Adeline, the new shop in TriBeCa, specializes in retro-styled bikes for ladies and gentleman, including the $1,295 Pashley Princess Sovereign, "the quintessential English town and country bicycle," complete with a bell and a cunning wicker basket.
You'd think the obvious alternative for folks who want classic style on a budget would be a vintage bicycle. Good luck with that. Thanks to demand, New York's used-bike prices have doubled since 2009; some folks make a living buying $50 bikes at upstate garage sales and reselling in the city. At Landmark Vintage Bicycles in the East Village, an old three-speed from Sears costs $250; used Schwinns and Raleighs run $300 to $900. "People really like the way the older bikes look," says store mechanic Tom Forkin.
I'd laugh at all this nonsense, but then I'd be laughing at myself. I ride around the city (wearing heels) on a 1972 Motobecane, an old French touring bike I snagged for $75, before the inflation kicked in. I'm so proud of this thing, you'd think I personally invented the bicycle. And yes, it's a fantastic ride. Except for the fact that, like many vintage bikes, it's hefty, weighing in at 35 pounds. And rattles like a shopping cart. And loses its chain every time I switch gears. No one can fix it, and that shouldn't be a surprise. "European bikes aren't made for American mechanics," Mr. McCorkell says.
Bryan Derballa for The Wall Street Journal
A custom-made De Fietsfabriek
I'm not sure the new Dutch imports would do me much better. When I took one for a spin around Cobble Hill, courtesy of Rolling Orange, I suddenly realized why folks say these bikes outlast their owners: riding one could kill you. It's a smooth ride, but have you ever tried pedaling a Cadillac? I'd hate to take one of these 55-pound beasts over the Brooklyn Bridge. The Dutch, of course, equate heft with virtue. When I mentioned the weight to Ms. Brinkhorst after dismounting an oversize five-speed De Fietsfabriek, she patted the bicycle as if it were an obedient Clydesdale. "It's a tank!" she beamed.
Mr. McCorkell says if you're not obsessed with style, $500 will buy a sweet "urban fitness" bike made in (sigh) China of (sigh) lightweight aluminum.
It would last as long as a Dutch bike (about 10,000 miles) and provide a smooth, upright ride—perfect for errands, the urban commute and the occasional 30-mile joy ride.
But what fun is that? New York is all about suffering to maintain your image, and if that means riding a difficult bicycle, so be it. Mr. McCorkell says that's fine with him: "I'm just glad when someone's riding a bike."
—Ms. Kadet, who writes the "Tough Customer" column for SmartMoney magazine, can be reached at***
Enhanced by Zemanta

No comments: