Current models emphasize comfort over speed, striking a chord with newbies, experienced cyclists, and aging daredevils.
It may be an inconvenient truth for the cadre of militant cyclists living in Vancouver who won’t be happy until every fossil-fuel-burning vehicle is vaporized, along with the people who drive them, but cars and bikes can get along. BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Cadillac all sell their own line of high-end bicycles, for example, and some manufacturers—Honda and Peugeot, for two—got their start as bicycle makers.
Automotive scribes like bikes too, and this one has been riding them in a fairly serious way for most of his life. I used to commute to work by bike, and it’s been my principal form of exercise for over 35 years. Time and weather permitting, I’m good for 50 to 60 kilometres a week. I’d do more if I could, but there are times when you just have to have four wheels instead of two.
Up until now, I’ve been aboard either a traditional European-style road bike or some variety of mountain bike, depending on my route and where I want to go. But I’ve grown tired of the upright riding position, with all my weight on my arms and my inability to get both feet flat on the ground when I stop.
Help is at hand. There’s a new breed of cruiser-style bikes on the market that bears an uncanny resemblance to the old Raleigh- and Schwinn-type bicycles popular in the ’50s and ’60s. They’re comfortable, lightweight, stylish, and very user-friendly. “These bikes are huge, and everybody is buying them right now,” says Dave Enns, owner of the Delta Bike Company, in Tsawwassen. “I’d say at least 40 percent of my business is with cruisers.”
How the new cruisers differ from the conventional style of bike can mainly be seen in their construction. The seat downtube is angled slightly less severely than on a “normal” bike, and the bottom bracket, where the chainstays meet the seat tube, is extended by a couple of inches. This completely alters the riding/pedalling position and makes for a much more relaxed ride. As well—and this is probably the major difference—most of the rider’s weight is on his/her backside, as opposed to arms. The disadvantage is that because of the less aggressive pedalling position, you don’t get the same kind of purchase and control, and things like climbing hills and navigating trails are more difficult.
But for cruising around town, these bikes are pretty hard to beat. Because of their big fat tires and lightweight construction, the new cruisers quickly build up a kind of rolling momentum, and you can cover a lot of ground with relatively little effort once you get accustomed to the unorthodox riding position.
Depending on the model, you can also take advantage of multispeed gearing. Traditionally, cruisers had but one speed, with pedal-backward-type brakes. These days, you can get them with proper caliper-type brakes and up to 21 speeds, although seven-speed arrangements seem to be the most popular. Bicycle technology has progressed to the point where sophisticated derailleurs and precision-built shifters are also commonplace. The Electra Bicycle Company, for example, has a range of cruisers—including the popular Townie models—that come with up to 24 speeds. You can combine these with up-to-date derailleur gearing or traditional internal rear-hub gearing. “I’d say that Electra is probably number one in cruiser sales in North America,” says former mountain bike racer Enns.
Like so many cool ways of getting from A to B, the concept of the town or beach cruiser came from California, with a dash of European technology thrown in. Bike customizers in places like Los Angeles and San Diego had been taking apart and revamping traditional bicycles for years, and while sometimes a little off the wall, their creations definitely had a hipness about them.
The founders of Electra—Benno Baenziger and Jeano Erforth—both moved to California from Germany, and started their company in the early 1990s. As the story goes, they came to the Golden State on holiday, clapped eyes on some of the custom cruisers trolling up and down Venice Beach, and set up shop in Carlsbad. Companies such as Schwinn, Giant, and even Harley-Davidson have also gotten onboard, and virtually every bicycle manufacturer now has a cruiser model of some kind in its lineup.
Although its bikes are made by Taiwan’s Giant company, Electra is now one of the most successful manufacturers of cruiser bikes in the United States, its “flat foot technology” having struck a chord with both experienced cyclists and newbies.
Not to mention aging daredevils who still love the bicycle experience but have grown weary of the aggressive riding position and discomfort that sometimes come with the traditional mountain bike and European-style road racer. Contemporary mountain bikes and sports tourers, wonderful though they may be, are often aimed at younger riders, with the emphasis on speed over comfort.
Funny how things come around.