Mess Media




Nice Ride

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.




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