Retro Bikes With '90s Pizzazz

Faced with a choice between rugged mountain bikes built to leap felled trees or delicate road bikes designed to reach speeds of 50 mph, aspiring cyclists may wonder what ever happened to plain old two-wheelers.

Take heart. Back-to-basics bicycling is back. These new bikes are styled to look like the curvy beauties of the 1940s, but made with lighter, stronger materials and easy-to-operate, low-maintenance gear systems. Of these new retro bicycles, we tested two of the more practical types: cruisers, which are replicas of models from the 1940s and 1950s, and commuters, which are all-purpose bikes.

USER-FRIENDLY. What sets the bikes apart from the old-timers is a user-friendly gear system known as an internal hub. The hub protects the gears and brakes from water and grit by sealing them in a cylinder that encircles the rear axle. Now, not only do the brakes work better in wet conditions but the gear changers do not require the constant cleaning, oiling, and adjustment of other bicycles. Hubs have been around for years, but the new versions provide up to 7 speeds, and 12- and 14-speed models are being developed.

All of the models tested were equipped with the most commonly used internal hub, the seven-speed Shimano Nexus 7. The bikes range in price from $449 to $675, comparable to road and mountain bikes of similar quality. The frames were either steel or aluminum (titanium cruisers exist, but cost $2,250 or more). The lighter-weight aluminum models are less work to pedal and more agile, but because aluminum is stiff, the ride is often jolting. The slightly heavier but more flexible steel alloy frames absorb bumps better, offering a smoother ride. They are usually Chrome-moly (CroMo), a strong and light alloy, or the heavier High Tensile (Hi Ten).

Cruisers are vintage-style bikes suited for relaxed weekend rides. Though at an average weight of 33 pounds, they aren't designed for long-distance jaunts. Still, I could not get enough of the Breezer Ignaz-X ($675). Named for Schwinn founder Ignaz Schwinn, this homage to the 1930s Excelsior boasts an updated CroMo frame that handles better than the original. This plush bike rides like a Caddy. But at 32 pounds, it won't set records in the slalom.

At $475, the Electra DeLuxe 7 is more affordable, but its upright riding position exposes riders to the wind, making pedaling difficult. Accustomed to hand brakes, I found the coaster foot brakes awkward. But fenders, which protect riders from puddles, and a good chain guard, which keeps trouser cuffs away from the greasy parts, make the DeLuxe acceptable for short commutes.

Built from the original 1955 blueprints, the vintage Schwinn Cruiser SS ($449) looks even better the second time around, thanks to its faux wood-grain and black paint. Once you get it up to speed, the ride is stable, but, at 42 pounds, getting there is hard work.

Designed for utility, commuter bicycles are less stylish than cruisers. But their lighter, easier-to-maneuver frames can accommodate a cargo rack and fenders, making them ideal for running errands. With its fenders, cargo rack, head- and taillights, and a polite little bell, the Specialized Globe ($499) is a good all-purpose commuter bike. While the olive-and-mint-green paint job gives it a no-nonsense look, its Hi Ten frame makes for smooth handling.

The fashionable Bianchi Milano ($649), is a commuter for hipsters. This bike wins style points for the iridescent aqua paint and the blinking taillight built into the seat. The Milano handles well with roadworthy high-pressure tires and old-fashioned curved handlebars. However, the large-gauge aluminum frame gave a jarring ride, and the seat often slipped out of position because of a cheap bolt.

CURVY. The Gary Fisher Alfresco ($499) isn't fancy looking, but its CroMo frame takes up the bumps, and the bike handles with assurance. Surprisingly, the cheaply made saddle is comfortable. But take points off for the plastic chain guard, which clatters over rough pavement.

My preference was the Electra Street Rod ($599), an excellent compromise of cruiser looks and commuter performance. It has a curvy, cruiser-shaped CroMo frame yet is a manageable 29 pounds. Adding the available fenders and chain guard ($19.95) and replacing the slim, inflexible saddle with a $25 aftermarket one make this bike the perfect stylish commuter.

In the end, these easy-to-maintain bicycles won't tempt everyone. Indeed, some people still will prefer today's more complicated bikes and gear systems. We call them mechanics.

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