Simcoe and the Reinvention of a City Bike Geometry
Posted on 12 December 2013
Editors note: if you have followed the Curbside story you will know that for years we struggled with three things: price, packaging, and spec on city bikes. We collaborated with Batavus, Bobbin, Linus and Devinci (we tried with Linus, unsuccessfully) on several Curbside exclusives but were never able to get all three. But, there's a fourth thing - the most important: geometry, or better, "ride." Usually when you buy a bike you get a highly agile bike or a highy stable bike - choose one. But, in the city you need both, and you need both absolutely. If you are dodging a pedestrian while carrying groceries you need a bike that is highly agile but still glued to the ground. To accomplish this, the city bike had to think beyond its often un-revolutionary European antecedents and especially beyond the white label geometry seen on bikes like Linus, Bobbin (and the list goes on). It may seem strange to have an ex-Cervelo engineer behind what appears to be another pretty bike, but Simcoe was always designed to be safe - because if you think about it, "safety" is the best adjective you could possibly use to describe ride quality for the city.
- February 2016
We've mentioned before that city bikes tend to be regional objects. This isn't a criticism, it just makes sense. Racing bikes meet at international races and events. It is here that ideas are compared and adapted and the racing bike reaches relative uniformity. From our experience importing bikes from all corners of Europe we found that there is very little uniformity between city bike geometries, largely because no one has ever asked the question. And, while recent attempts have been made in North America to synthesize a uniform design principle, most results show a clear lack of experience. Beach cruiser geometry often becomes the fallback position, or the geometry falls victim to monetized cost-cutting (whether that means building a bike around the shipping box size or trying to build one-size-fits-all frames).
When we at Curbside sit down for a drink at the local pub we very well might be the most travelled and most experienced city bike importers on the globe. We cut our teeth on Dutch, Danish, English, and Italian city bikes and none of them fully addressed the needs of our Northeast consumer. Simcoe was built on the face-to-face retail experience of Curbside Cycle and the cross-continent conversations of Fourth Floor Distribution. We had a pretty good sense of what was needed. Simcoe collaborated with Toronto local Dave Anthony (above), who also used to head the R&D departments of FSA and Cervelo (and owns a little consulting company called Cyclo Mondo). Dave analyzed the melting-pot portfolio of Fourth Floors imports and started to look for a common principle. And that's no easy task, because what we were asking him to do was nothing less than formulating a new standard in city bike geometry.
Again, city bikes are creatures of social geography. When Dave analyzed the geometries of Dutch, Danish, English, and Italian city bikes - the results were remarkably discordant. For instance, Dutch bikes still have high bottom brackets because the bikes were originally fixed gears - and that was a century ago! This high center of gravity was stabilized through an insanely long wheelbase, making the bikes both unusually high and long. English bikes corrected this problem but still used 60-66 degree seat/head angles, making climbing both difficult and sloppy. Meanwhile, Italian city bikes had seat angles at an insane 90 degrees, perfect for time trialling to the coffee shop. (Yikes!). Only Denmark seemed to be producing modern geometries, but with a population of only six million people, they lacked the economy of scale to produce anything other than designer price-points.
Attempts at building a North American city bike seemed even more confused, often betraying a bias towards the (disposable) California beach cruiser market. (And that's not surprising since most of the North American bicycle industry is based in Los Angeles - and that's no place to design a city bike!). Bikes like Electra had wheelbases and seat angles that lowered the rider far below traffic and crated questionable pedalling efficiency. Other bikes (like Linus) seemed to be designed around principles totally unfamiliar - even cynical - to the bicycle industry. In industrial design it's not uncommon to be taught that an object should be engineered around the shipping box size. That's strange to us, but then we also imported fully built Dutch bikes for a while (which we admit was a pretty dumb). In any case, you don't ride a box. There are also many attempts to build one-size-fits-all bikes, perhaps because China demands high minimum orders, or perhaps to cut costs. But in dense North American cities with few bike lanes, size is a matter of safety. At the end of the day we saw far too much focus on clever branding than we did on engineering good fit or real transportation solutions. We knew what was wrong, now Simcoe had to make it right...
If you look at a city it's made up of tight corners and long straight-aways. And hills. Thus, a bike with great acceleration, snappy handling and a longish footprint is absolutely required. A lot of early 90's mountain bikes struggled with this same question, especially those legendary designers at Bridgestone. Dave engineered the Simcoe with a slightly shorter front-center and slightly longer rear-center - keeping aware of toes and panniers - and a relatively relaxed seat-tube angle combined with a slightly steeper head-tube angle. The long and short (ha,ha) of all of this is that a Simcoe can be a speedy longer distance commuter or agile short-burst city bike designed to climb efficiently and, of course, carry your kids and groceries. Simcoe isn't just good-looking - that's just the seduction. It's meant to absolutely blow your mind with its ride quality.
Perhaps Simcoe's coup-de-grace was the step-through bike. Unlike other companies who first launched a one-size-fits-all frame for women, we knew that women are the major city bike consumer and take fit seriously - like clothing. Simcoe built the 18" Simcoe with 650A wheels to lower the center of gravity for shorter cyclists and kept a 700c for the 20" size. Simcoe also refused to build a bike with an exceptionally long (Dutch) or short (Mixte) head-tube, opting instead for the sweet-spot in between. This was a brilliant lesson learned from old North American companies like Schwinn and CCM who reduced SKU's across models so you could carry one model and balance SKU's across proper-fit and color. What Simcoe really did was capitalize on the timeless functionality of the quill stem. If you really want to achieve Dutch or Mixte positions, it's just an allen-key away. No need for two totally different models. That means less clutter and more focus on the sales floor - and a bike our staff and customers can believe in.