In the age of the self and the selfie, your bike can no longer be just a bike. Like the car you drive, the phone you use, the clothes you wear, the beer you drink, the coffee you order, or the amount you shave, your bike has to say something about you. If you ride a ‘fixie’ (fixed-gear bike), with coloured wheels and funky patterns on the frame, you are probably a hipster. If you ride a super-light racer with a titanium frame and wheels with a low ‘spoke count’, you are probably a serious cyclist — or a wannabe Chris Froome. Even a bicycle as practical as the Brompton or any other fold-up jobbie suggests you are a man with places to go and people to see.
There is a difference, however, between cycling fans who want to make a check-me-out statement with their two-wheelers, and the majority of now-and-then cyclists or soon-to-be cyclists who just want a bike that is fun to ride and looks sharp. And in that difference there is still presumably a fairly big gap in the ever-expanding bike market. Which is where the Electra Bicycle Company comes in. Electra seems to want to do for the modern bike what the Beetle or the Mini did for the car. Its bikes are designed to be mass-market and cool — trendy machines that everybody finds easy to ride. Beginning in California, Electra has been instrumental in reviving the popularity of the cruiser — the fixed-gear, high-handlebar American classic that is now enormously popular with young cyclists.
But the company’s real triumph has been the Townie, an easy-going and fun bike for non-cyclists like me. I rode a sample one around London for three weeks. Now that I have given it back, it’s not an exaggeration to say I feel that something is missing from my life.
The Townie is a cross between a cruiser and an old-fashioned town bike. It has something called ‘flat-foot technology’ — which really just means that the rider can easily put his feet flat on the ground while aboard. This helps the inexperienced feel completely relaxed while cycling. The Townie also has a lovely large and round leather seat, which is comforting, especially when you think about those disturbingly phallic saddles you get on some racing or tour bikes. The Townie has no intention of interfering with your bottom. It just wants to be a good ride — and it is.
The Townie is not terrifically fast or adaptable to different terrains. It has its name for a reason. But its three gears are useful on the hilly parts of London, and the pedal breaking is quite fun. Moreover, it just looks different and cool; I parked it outside the office once and returned to find a gaggle of Chinese tourists had surrounded it to gawp and take photographs. A few days later, outside Westfield Shopping centre, a chirpy cockney approached me as I dismounted and said: ’Strong bike, mate. Where d’you get that?’ He was not looking to steal it, I don’t think, just being enthusiastic. I locked up the Townie with a self-satisfied grin.