Putting a bike built just
for Boston to the ultimate road test.
By Scott Sutherland
Boston Globe, May 11, 2008
Of Boston's many tribes, one of the most visible is the one built
around the fellowship of the single-speed bicycle. Students, bike
messengers, Boston-bike-culture lifers, wannabes like me - we are the
helmetless legions out pedaling daily, our bikes an affirmation of
low-tech simplicity. To us, gears and shifters are grease-caked symbols
of modern life gone wrong, of humanity's weakness for disposable
technological gewgaws. In Boston, obsessed as this town is with status
and all things shiny, the singlespeed offers a cheerfully subversive
alternative to the typical competitive consumerism.
That's why I was eager to get my hands on a new bike inspired by the
local tribe. This spring, Specialized, the California-based bike
manufacturing giant, introduced a limited-edition line of singlespeeds
themed to a handful of bikecrazed cities: New York, London, Seattle,
Chicago, and Boston. The bikes are variations of the Langster, the
company's knock-around aluminum-framed single-speed. Company
representatives talked to shop owners, gear-heads, and other
aficionados in each location and came up with a bike to reflect the
spirit and sensibility of the city: chopped-down handlebars and
taxi-yellow paint for New York, faux-wood fenders and a coffeecup
holder for Seattle, and so on.
For its Boston entry, Specialized came up with a deep-purple paint job
adorned with a vaguely Federal-style stars-and-eagles motif, including
a design on the chain stays that I can't identify; it might be a fire
extinguisher, or an old-time seltzer dispenser, though it's hard to
know what seltzer has to do with Enlightenment-era notions of justice
and liberty. There are big nods to messenger culture, including drop
handlebars in bare chrome, a white chain (yes, it's really white), and
white-painted rims and hubs. Flip the rear wheel around, and you can
ride the bike as a fixed-gear, meaning you're always pedaling, whether
you're accelerating or slowing. "You really want to ride this as a
fixie," says John Allis, a co-owner of Belmont Wheelworks and
Somerville's Ace Wheelworks, who loaned me a Langster Boston for a few
days. "That's the purest way to experience it."
Jon Swanson, an equipment products manager and developer at
Specialized, says he would have pushed the Boston bike-messenger theme
even harder were it not for the pesky considerations of the
marketplace. "As much as we tried to tap into what the local courier
culture rides, it might not be commercially viable to try to sell a
bike without brakes," he says.
Sure enough, mine is one of the few bikes so burdened when I introduce
a Langster Boston to local bike society. It's a chilly weekday morning
in March, and a handful of messengers gathers around the bike in
Winthrop Square, in the Financial District, sizing it up. The reviews,
to put it charitably, are mixed. Chris Rowe, a messenger who used to
paint frames at Independent Fabrication, the high-end bike maker in
Somerville, sums up a few common complaints. "The tribal graphics are
kind of weird," he says of the paint job. "The track handlebars are
wrong - for messengers, three-speed or downhill-type bars have been a
Boston tradition since at least the early 1990s. And most of us ride
steel frames - they break less than aluminum, and they're comfier on
Boston streets." Other messengers pile on. They point to the Langster's
carbon fork as suspect - again, steel is the material of choice - and
question whether the wheels can stand up to the rigors of a Boston
winter. The bike's $689 price tag doesn't seem to faze them; some of
them are riding bikes with wheelsets that cost almost that much.
One guy interrupts his assessment to study the mystery graphic on the
chain stays. It takes him about three seconds to identify it as a
cannon. I bend down, squinting. Of course it's a cannon. It's a sad
moment for me; artillery will never hold the romance of seltzer.
The further I get from messenger culture, the better the bike fares.
Rolling down the avenues of Back Bay, the Langster seems a perfect
balance of good grooming and bad-boy menace, a combination that will
forever make well-heeled Bostonians go weak in the knees. At a
crosswalk on Boylston Street, I pull up next to a young pony-tailed
woman, decked out in Nike finery, jogging in place, waiting for the
light to change. She gives the bike a long, frank appraisal. (I imagine
our brief but electric conversation. She, coyly: "Nice. Fixed?" Me,
coyly: "Nope. Single.") Singlespeeds are turning a lot of heads these
days, apparently. Swanson describes the single-speed segment of the
bike market as "huge"; Belmont and Ace Wheelworks each carries more
than a dozen varieties - six by Specialized alone - and Allis says that
singles and fixies make up more than a quarter of their sales.
At first, I'm not sold on the Langster Boston. The bike seems less a
tribute to local bike culture than someone taking their revenge against
it. I can't get comfortable. The handlebars - slippery, with the brake
levers mounted oddly - seem particularly diabolical. The more I ride
it, though, the more I relax. Some of the things that the messengers
pooh-poohed - the carbon fork and seat post, for starters - help the
bike feel light and tight, efficient but not harsh. I try to ride more
with my hands down in the drops, which have rubber grips. I use the
brakes less, riding in synch with the swirl of traffic and pedestrians
rather than weaving a perilous line through them. The bike grows on me.
It also occurs to me that maybe Allis is right - fixed-gear might be
the best way to ride this bike. Fixed is the setup of choice among
messengers, the tribe's ruling warrior class, after all. My instinct
for self preservation is strong, though, so I avoid the challenge for
days. To flip the rear wheel, or not to flip; I am Hamlet with chain
grease on my pant leg.
Hubris wins out. One of my enduring bike-hero fantasies is to roll into
Davis Square on a fixed-gear and check my rig with the bike valet at
Redbones BBQ before tucking into a feast. So it is that I find myself
in a parking lot near Kendall Square, wrench in hand, flipping my rear
wheel. I take a few practice spins around the lot, then gingerly set
out for Davis Square, which suddenly seems like it's a long way away.
Other riders, fixed and not, whiz by me. Stopping and starting are a
bit of a trick - I almost buck myself off trying to slow down a couple
of times - but I get the hang of it. I'm not exactly a fixie warrior,
but I'm also no longer a complete wannabe.
I glide up to Redbones and hand the Langster off to Brianna McCormick,
who's doing double duty as hostess and bike valet. "What a beautiful
bike!" she exclaims. I stroll in for a pulled-pork sandwich and a beer.
I strike up a conversation at the bar with an amiable fellow, and as
I'm settling up, I mention that I need to retrieve my bike.
"Single-speed?" he asks me.
"Naw," I say, desperate to sound nonchalant. "Fixed."
"Sweet," he says.
Dude. You have no idea.