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Inside Shinola—Detroit’s newest old name brand

Few things make me happier than the increase in the rise of affordable city bikes available in North America. When I bought my Batavus in 2009, I went all the way to England to get it, because Batavus bikes were only sold by a few North American dealers. Now Public and Brooklyn Cruiser and even mainstream manufacturers like Trek have added city bikes to their lineups for well under $1000.

Of course, selling bikes at that price point means having the frameset built overseas. If you want a city bike built in the US, your choices are myriad, but your price options are not: Most run upwards of $2000 for the frame alone. Which is not a criticism—if you’re getting a handbuilt frame from Ant, for example, it is cheap at the price. But what if you want similar quality on a smaller budget? That’s the gap that Shinola is trying to fill with their line of city bicycles.

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When I was in Detroit last week, I was able to visit Shinola and learn a little more about the brand—and the bikes. The brand Shinola has been around for quite some time—and yes, it’s the same one that inspired the famous catchphrase.

Headquartered in the famous Argonaut Building, GM’s former design headquarters, the entry to the offices is a nod to the brand’s history of shoe polish production. Now, however, the company focuses on bicycles, watches and leather goods.

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Original Shinola products

The first thing everyone asks me when I tell them what Shinola makes is why those three products—so of course it was the first question I asked Alex Stchekine, Shinola’s bike assembly specialist, when I arrived. The answer? People who geek out over watches and people who geek out over bikes have a lot of overlap—and of course, bikes and watches are both efficient, useful technologies, and can be investment pieces that are built to last. As for the leather goods, well, if you’re going to make watchbands, bike saddles and grips, you might as well make bags, wallets and journals. (Plans are in the works to make leather bike bags to match the bicycles.)

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As an aside, apparently people are *really* eager to see Shinola watches—even more than the bikes! They’ll be available for men and women soon, and feature quartz movements and leather bands made in Missouri.

women's watch/men's watch

women’s watch/men’s watch

 

This is where the watches are assembled.

This is where the watches are assembled.

But I know our readers are here for the bikes, so let’s move on! Shinola is starting out with two models: The Runwell and the Bixby, which are sold as complete bikes. The Runwell has 11 speeds and retails at $2950. The Bixby, a three-speed with a distinctive decal and geometry, retails at $1950. Both come in three frame sizes and three colors, and the Bixby comes in a relaxed diamond or a step-through frame. The diamond Bixby is sold in black or the emerald shown below; the stepthrough Bixby is sold in black, cream or mauve.

runwellheadbadge greenbixby

Made in the same Waterford, Wisconsin, factory that formerly built Schwinns and now produces its own line of bicycles and those of some other small manufacturers—including a few of the higher-end Rivendell models—the bikes are then assembled in Detroit. They can be shipped fully or partially assembled.

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runwellframes

Runwell frames

Whether they’re building bikes, watches or leather journals or bags, attention to detail is important at Shinola. Most of this post will focus on the Bixby, since that’s the bike I test rode, but let’s take a minute to admire the lugs, custom dropouts and reinforced front fork on the Runwell. Can you see how the cables are routed through the frame?

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Both bike models feature internal Shimano hubs, Shimano disc brakes, Velo Orange fenders and stems. The saddles and grips are custom Shinola-branded leather. Somehow, I cut the nose off this one when taking the photo! But the feel was similar to a new Brooks B17, although I think the nose is slightly longer.

Shinola saddle

Shinola saddle

These are pictures of a Bixby, which is accented with warm copper rivets, pedals and grip borders. The Runwell accents are silver.

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The tires are Schwalbe, of course.

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And the bell is a Crane.

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Each bike also has a serial number.

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The Argonaut Building is also home to the College for Creative Studies, and several students have worked on projects with Shinola dealing with bike design. The walls are decorated with student prototype ideas—elements of some of them have made it into the final Shinola designs, including the elegant cream decal on the Bixby. You can also see here, again, how the cables are routed through the frame.

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Here’s one example of a student project. We at LGRAB support the creation of a bicycle meant to haul wine!

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I only got to ride the Bixby around the offices, but here are my impressions of it.

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FIrst, the posture was more agressive than any of my other bikes, with the saddle positioned slightly above the handlebars. I felt perched on the bike, although still fairly upright. Obviously this is something that could be adjusted by raising the handlebars, but it also felt like something I could get used to easily and seemed to be a good position for this bike’s geometry.

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ridingbixby2

The 47cm Bixby fit me almost perfectly, something that, as a short-torsoed 5-feet-and-change girl, I find to be pretty rare. The only other bike that I’ve ridden that fits me as well is Kermit Allegra. This is the only size ladies’ Bixby listed on Shinola’s site, which says it should fit riders up to 5’8″. I’m not sure that would be true if the 5’8″ person in question has long legs. The inseam measurements say that the 47cm Bixby fits those with inseams between 25-32, and as usual that seems like a better way to judge whether the bike will fit you (my inseam is 28 inches).

ridingbixby

Stopping power felt good, and pedaling was a breeze, though obviously there was no real challenge on terrain like this!

inspectingbixby

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That said, this bike is light! Hard to say without a comparison around, but for a bike with fenders and a steel frame, I was surprised to find it so easy to lift. They don’t list weights on their site, but I’d say that it is under 30 pounds—at least as light as my Abici, if not lighter. Of course, it doesn’t have lights or a rack on it yet.

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Alex told me that response to the bikes has been better than expected so far. They’re currently building about 50 a month at Waterford, and they expect to build around 500 this year.

Obviously it’s impossible to compare the Bixby to the competition in any meaningful way after a short indoor test ride, but I was impressed with the attention to detail and the quality feel of the bicycle. Luckily, those of you in the market for a bike at this price range can check the Bixby or Runwell out for yourself. Currently they are available at Copenhagen Cyclery in Chicago, and in a few other shops across the country, but Shinola will be opening two storefronts in the near future: One on West Canfield street in Detroit, and the other in Tribeca in New York City. I really enjoyed my test ride of the Shinola Bixby and might have to take another spin when I’m in NYC this spring.

{Thanks to Bridget and Alex at Shinola for setting up the visit and being so generous with their time, and to my brother Charlie for taking most of these photos!}

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Amsterdam shenanigans

Lest you think all we did on our trip to Amsterdam is visit bike shops and examine cycling infrastructure, let me assure you that we also did what we could to sample the culture, food and drink. Here’s what we got up to during our three nights and two-and-a-half days in the city.

We stayed in a houseboat on a canal—highly recommended.

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Dottie unlocks the door while the suitcases wait patiently to enter.

We discovered Little Bear on the Water thanks to the fab Cup of Jo, and Anno was an incredible host. He even left us two Heinekens in the fridge.

welcome

Our welcome gift

Our first night in Amsterdam we were lucky enough to have dinner with locals—Malay takeout! The next day, we set off on our bikes to check out the Van Gogh Museum. Well, as close as we could get to the Van Gogh museum, which turned out to be the Hermitage Amsterdam since the real museum is being renovated. Since we were right there, we had to try to take a picture in the i amsterdam sign—with limited success (that’s us in the “m”!).

amsterdam sign

 

After admiring the exhibit (I thought it was interesting that Van Gogh and his brother corresponded in French!) we went to lunch at Gartine, a spot Dottie had uncovered during her Amsterdam research. It’s hard to pick a favorite meal on this trip (see below, plus we ate here in Paris!) but this lunch was definitely the best meal for the money that we had on our trip. We each had a delicious sandwich and shared a custard dessert.

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Outside of Gartine

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Lunch, the aftermath

 

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Dottie through the lantern on our table at Gartine

view from below amsterdam row houses

Looking up from our table

 

After lunch, we got back on the bikes and struck out for Bols Genever, with an unscheduled stop at a book market that we just happened to pass through (love this aspect of traveling!). Dottie bought a vintage bike print.

cyclists zipping past the book market

cyclists zipping past the book market

 

The House of Bols museum was definitely a slick, commercial tour—still, it was a very nicely done and affordably priced one. We went on a Friday night, so the entry was just € 7,50—which included a cocktail and three tastes of Bols.  The perfect aperitif! We felt like we got an interesting glimpse into the history of this precursor to the gin we both love so much. :)

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cocktail

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the four main types of Bols Genever

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Bols also makes flavored liqueurs—you could spritz these into the air and guess what flavor they were.

After our time at Bols, we pedaled through Vondelpark to our first dinner out in Amsterdam at Restaurant Blauw. We ordered the rice table, which was a first for both of us but definitely something we want to do again—nothing like having scads of tiny, delicious dishes spread out before you.

mericetable

dottiericetable

I think she’s impressed

On Saturday morning, we took a ferry to Noord Amsterdam (separate post on that one) and then returned the bikes to Henry at WorkCycles before hurrying back to our houseboat to meet my brother. Charlie had arranged for a stopover in Amsterdam on his way back from a work trip in Italy. After a brief cultural detour and a couple of drinks, we headed to dinner.

meandcharlie

my brother and me

We had dinner at a place called Marit’s, which was in a quiet neighborhood and was another of Dottie’s discoveries. Marit serves dinner a few times a week in her home—so it’s sort of a cross between a restaurant proper, and a supper club. The service was professional, but the atmosphere was homelike and cosy.
maritsmeal

You know, like the sort of place where you might pause in the middle of the meal to pet a dog.
dottie and marit's dog

We walked home, intending to stop at the windmill brewery that Henry had recommended. Alas, it was closed, but we found a bar next door that would serve us their beer. It was quite good. I guess it’s a good thing to have something to look forward to on our next visit…

amsterdam night

Brewing beer in a windmill! Brilliant idea.

 

windmill IPA

 

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Our walk took us past the Vanmoof factory—we saw a handful of these in the wild on the trip.

Eventually, we returned to our houseboat and reflected on how lovely it is to bike and walk everywhere so easily in such a cozy, friendly city.

It was up early the next day to head to the airport. Amsterdam, we’ll be back!

 

 

 

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Nashville!

I’m back from Trishaville, aka Nashville. Although I lived there for only three years and moved away four years ago, Nashville is my favorite city to return to again and again, simply because of Trisha and other friends.  And there’s something about the South that calls to me, although I spent my youth hatching escape plans.

My three days with Trisha were full of awesomeness, of course: used bookstores, a British sitcom marathon, a discount designer warehouse, French breakfast, fancy ice cream, duck fat tater tots, Yazoo beer and live music at the Mercy Lounge (Those Darlins!).  Plus, I finally got to meet Trisha’s brother, Charlie.  Hmmm what else?…

…oh yeah – bicycling!

I got to meet the new Kate Spade Abici, whom I keep calling Kermit Spade, to Trisha’s chagrin.  With Trisha on KS and me on the Bat, we rode downtown and crossed the pedestrian bridge for a view of the Nashville skyline.

Yeah, we’re cool.

I must share, there are a number of weirdo men loitering around downtown Nashville who were quite interested in us.  We handled them effectively with stoney silence, which we’re both really good at when we put our minds to it.

After the bridge, we rode over to Broadway, with its honky tonks and cowboy boot shops.

We really should have stopped to take advantage of the 3-boots-for-the-price-of-one deal – missed opportunity.

Bicycling in Nashville was a great pleasure for me.  The weather is not yet at Southern summer oppressiveness.  The infrastructure is quite supportive of cycling, with wide bike lanes on many medium-sized streets and plenty of winding back roads with almost no cars at all.  Drivers seemed to display the fabled Southern hospitality, although I’m prone to romaticize it now that I don’t live there anymore.  One guy in a work truck blocking the bike lane drawled, “Pardon me, ladies,” which made me inordinately happy.

Today my thighs are sore from all those hills (damn! major props to Trisha for handling those every day) but it was worth it.

I make it to Nashville at least once a year, for Trisha’s birthday, but hopefully it won’t take me a year to return this time.  Chicago is comparatively cold in all ways.

Many more photos from our Nashville adventures and Trisha’s Abici to come.

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DIY: Fun with Fenders

Technically, this should have been categorized as a DIWYF — do it with your family! Without my dad and my brother, there’s no way these Velo Orange Fluted Fenders would have made it onto Le Peug. I had read about fender installations before purchasing mine, and the one thing that all the stories had in common was the potential to get into something difficult–something that required special tools or customization. As luck would have it, mine required both.

Twas the week after Christmas, and we wheeled Le Peug into my Dad’s garage.

Le Peug before

Le Peug enters the garage . . . he doesn't know what he's in for

First step was to clean the bike and touch up the 30-year-old paint job. Dad promised that his 3M compound could take out all but the deepest scratches, and that Wenol, an extra-strength German metal cleaner, could make the dull aluminum rims shine.

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cast of characters

As usual, he was right. Check out these before/after shots. That compound cream worked miracles. If you think your bike needs to be repainted, try this first — but keep in mind that it does remove some of the paint, so be cautious.

portion of seat tube near bottom of photo has been cleaned

stays

stay at top of photo has been cleaned

After cleaning the frame with compound, we touched up the scratches with some white paint. Once that dried, it was time for wax. Now, the frame is back to blinding white and looks almost like new.

The clean, touched-up frame -- like new!

That took a couple of hours, and a lot of elbow grease, but it was the easy part. Next, we had to figure out how to install the fenders. Le Peug’s brake and stay clearance was tight, so we had to reshape both the front and rear fenders a bit.

And because the screw on our brake bolt wasn’t long enough to attach the fender, too, we had to come up with a makeshift L-bracket. Luckily, right about that time my brother wandered into the garage. He scrounged up some scrap metal and got to work.

Charlie bracket

Charlie drills the custom bracket

One fender down! I study the instructions for our next step.

The other major modification? Shaving down the front sides of the rear fender so that it would fit better between the chain stays behind the bottom bracket. Sorry, but I did not take pictures of this process since flying sparks were involved.

We replaced the wheels and cut the extra length off the stays (more sparks!).

Both fenders on, we replace the wheels.

Then we wiped the frame down again, removing some of the marks we had made with wrenches, etc, during the installation. And here’s the finished product!

front fender with custom bracket

Charlie wasn’t happy with the L-bracket was, since it was so visible and made of two different colored metals, but I like it — the gold matches the decal on the bottom tube and it is distinctive.

all done

my finished beautiful bicycle

While I don’t really enjoy day-to-day bike maintenance duties (refilling tires, yawn), projects like this feel different. Taking the bike apart, cleaning it, installing the fenders and putting it all back together gave me a better sense of how my bike works. And seeing the finished project was oh-so-satisfying: Le Peug looks better than ever, and our painstaking custom installation means a perfect fit with no rattling. I’m now saving my pennies for the next upgrade on my list: a Brooks saddle.

What’s your latest DIY project?

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Happy Birthday Grams!

It’s my grandmother’s 75th birthday today.

Grams and her new Schwinn bicycle (and cat!)

Grams at age 10 with her new Schwinn bicycle (and cat!)

There was hard work to be done on the Wisconsin farm where my grandmother grew up, but as the baby of the family by nearly 10 years, she was doted on — her sister Dorothy even took Grams along on dates to the drive-in.

Grams did let Dorothy ride her Schwinn once — but the story goes that Dorothy was not a very skilled rider and promptly crashed into the merry-go-round their dad had rigged up out of a plank and a wagon wheel. Grams still remembers the scratch it made on the fender.

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My First Bike Ride

Biking with my brother over the Fourth reminded me that our first bike rides ever were taken together. The last time I visited my parents, I dug up some photographic evidence.

These Schwinns were our first bikes ever. We got them for our birthdays (both in April — yes, this is what April looks like in northern Minnesota) in 1985. Charlie was turning 4, and I was turning 5. Training wheels were the way to go back then…

Here I am frowning at the handlebars (this bike stuff was serious business) while Mom adjusts Charlie’s bike and Uncle Bob looks on.

Getting to know you...

Getting to know you...

Meanwhile, Charlie barely fits on his bike! Moments after Mom let go of the handlebars, he was off…and crashed in the woods since he didn’t know how to brake yet. Oops. I think we may have this on video somewhere.

My brother and his first bike.

My brother and his first bike.

How old were you when you took your first ride?

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Biking with My Brother

The holiday weekend found me in Indianapolis visiting my brother. On Sunday, we rode the Monon Trail from his neighborhood to downtown, a roundtrip of somewhere around 14 miles. The trail, built along the path of an old railway was beautiful, the snazzy Bianchi bikes we borrowed from a high school friend were nimble, but the best thing about it was spending some time riding bikes with my brother again.

Charlie and me on bikes today.

Charlie and me on our borrowed Bianchis.

This is an old favorite hobby of ours, as you can see.

Charlie and me, with our bikes in 1987.

Charlie and me, with our bikes in 1987.

We’re no longer quite so blond, and I no longer carry a groomable dog toy with me when I ride, but other than that, things were pretty much the same as when we used to ride around our neighborhood in Minnesota, or to the convenience store from our house in Alabama: fun!

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