Introducing Retrovelo

Retrovelo is a small bicycle company in Leipzig, Germany, who in 2003 introduced a new style of bike: the Balloon Racer. These bikes are part city bike, part zero-generation mountain bike, and part, well, a whole lot of other elements borrowed from bikes over the last century. While “retro” in aesthetic, these bikes are not warmed-over anything, but new designs executed with exacting vision and technical innovations never before seen in production bikes. Clever Cycles is the first North American dealer.

They are stunning, easily among the most beautiful bikes I’ve ever seen. The step-through models could be pieces in a gauzy photo shoot with Marilyn Monroe. Confectionary or cupcakes with buttercream frosting come to mind, but those are sticky, weak and ephemeral, while these are timeless lugged cro-mo steel, tough and purposeful. The guys’ ones evoke lumberjacks and German shepherds and underwear (maybe that’s just me).

balloonThere’s almost a danger in this prettiness: you might think looks are their strongest point. In fact they ride marvelously. Weighing about 10 pounds less than similarly outfitted Dutch utility bikes, and supporting a sportier posture, these bikes scream fun, with wheelies and jumps feeling as natural as just gliding along. More than any other single thing, it’s the tires. Many people with a little knowledge of tires take one look at these fatties and assume that they must be slow. You know what they say about a little knowledge? Schwalbe re-introduced balloon tires in 2001 with the “Big Apple” after decades of obsolescence, and they did it really right, starting with light, supple casings that result in lower rolling resistance than many narrower, higher pressure tires (the data is buried). You can run pressures as low as 25psi, and just float over crummy pavement, rails, even the odd curb or flight of stairs. They are fast. Really. Take a test ride!

Context

Retrovelo designer Frank Patitz, for whom Schwalbe named the signature “Fat Frank” tires now appearing on a number of Retrovelo-inspired bikes, loves mid-20th-century American industrial design with a zeal found more often outside America than in. On his visit with us in Portland recently he’d stop at every old Nash Rambler, Ford Falcon and the like on the street to photograph them. (We were riding, of course; my eventual eye-rolling produced assurances that he doesn’t actually own a car, but just that he admires them as design objects.)

The bikey parallels of these old cars are the balloon-tired “clunkers” that, after 30-40 years of service (or sitting in people’s garages) got reborn as the first mountain bikes in Northern California, in the late 1970s. Retrovelos are partly an homage to these bikes. Hub gears, drum brakes, Brooks saddles and those distinctive swept handlebars are back! Here’s mountain bike pioneer Joe Breeze taking a Retrovelo down Repack, the legendary Marin County run:
Joe Breeze takes Paul down Repack

I confess to a certain curmudgeonliness about mountain bikes, or at least about the gap between how they are designed and marketed and how they are most often used. Mountain bikes are presented as toys you load up on cars to drive someplace free of cars, to escape. In reality, mountain bikes are the dominant utility bikes of America. Older, unsuspended ones especially, retrofit with lower-profile tires to bring down the bottom bracket, a rack, fenders, maybe some more comfortable bars please, clamp-on lights: these are the tough, lovable mutts of the American street. The proudest few ascend the karmic spiral of Craigslist and methamphetamine reincarnations to become Xtracycles. You have to love the punk-rock frankenstein aesthetic, or you don’t. What if bikes like this could be designed?

I see Retrovelos as a brighter, less ironic ending to the mountain bike story, or another fork of the story picking up from that same start, thirty years later. They take the essential fun, toughness, and comfort of archetypical mountain bikes, but instead of leaving all the useful, transport-oriented stuff to be bolted on haphazardly by the second or third owner, it’s designed in, gorgeously.

Models, specifications, prices

Our first shipment consists of models Paul and Paula, Max and Maxi, in 7 colors: black, olive, ivory, dusty rose, grass green, stone gray, and dove blue. All are complete with Nexus hub generator lighting front and rear, Roller (drum) brakes, rack, fenders, kickstand, bell. Paul is $2099; Paula $2149; Max $2399; and Maxi $2449.

Paul and Max frames are 56cm only (32″ standover), suiting riders from about 5’8″ to 6’2″; Paula and Maxi fit from about 5’2″ to 5’11″.

Paul and Paula feature Shimano Nexus 8-speed “red band” (premium) hub gearing and an elegant chain guard. A first in production bikes, models Max and Maxi feature the Swiss Schlumpf High Speed Drive to extend the range of the 3-speed gearhub to 466%, comparable to some 27-speed drivetrains. You shift the Schlumpf by tapping the button in the middle of the cranks with your heel:

Want more pics?

37 thoughts on “Introducing Retrovelo”

  • Jacque

    Whew... This article had quite an effect on me. For the first time I understand the term bike porn.
    And I am also, for the first time, questioning my recent vow of poverty...

    Reply
  • AnomaLily

    What is the frame height of the Paula and Maxi? I'm not quite 5'2" and I'm wondering if it's just out of the question too big.

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  • Todd (admin)

    Anomalily, the seat tube itself is 52cm. With the stock Brooks B67 saddle at the lowest possible height, the top of the saddle is 62cm (2' 1/4") from the center of the cranks, measured along the seat tube. The cranks are 170s. You could swap the saddle to a shorter B18 Lady and get it at least half an inch lower than that. You could compare to a bike that fits you, or, since you're local; come on over!

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  • Anne

    Lovely. Thanks for the virtual tour - makes me want to make the trek to Portland to check them out.

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  • Bruce Alan Wilson
    Bruce Alan Wilson April 8, 2008 at 1:07 pm

    Why are the women's versions more expensive than the men's?

    Reply
  • Jeff

    I don't mean to be rude, but tapping a button on the cranks with one's heel is possibly the kludgiest way of shifting a bike I've ever heard of (right up there with the flip-flop hub). They couldn't figure out a way to put a remote on the handlebars?

    I'm all for aesthetics, but this seems like form dragging function out into the hall and beating it silly.

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  • Tbird

    Jeff- the heel shift is really pretty smooth. I tried it and it takes about 30 seconds to get the hang of it. It is unusual, but really nifty, I think.

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  • Todd (admin)

    Jeff, the Schlumpf drive has been around about a decade, and while your opinion isn't entirely novel, people who've used it tend to disagree. Imagine for a moment that you had never heard or seen anything about derailleur gearing, and I were to describe to you a system where these cable-operated widgets full of springs and idler wheels literally shove (derail, as in train wreck) the chain off of one gear onto the next, resulting in a new chain angle, and a new amount of slack to be taken up, and it all has to remain exposed and cleaned and lubed regularly, and -- o you have to be pedaling but not too hard while executing these shifts, so think ahead, and watch out that the chain doesn't fall off altogether (it happens!), and o there's the part where you have to build a radically asymmetrical, weaker rear wheel to accommodate the cluster, and ... what's that noise? O it just needs some trimming but really this is what all the pros use and trust me it's great, far less kludgey than just pushing a button on a self-contained unit at any moment for an instant sure shift. Uh-huh.

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  • Jeff

    Sure, pushing a button to shift sounds great! That makes plenty of sense. But pushing a button with my foot while pedalling? It reminds me of those old clipless pedal systems where you had to reach down with your hand and disengage the binding on the pedal.

    I think you guys are great -- Portland obviously really needs a transportation-focused shop, and you guys fit the bill beautifully. (I bought my Xtracycle kit from you guys.) I guess I just worry about aesthetics and cool retro-themed stuff overtaking really practical utility cycling.

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  • Mike C

    Some of the bikes in the Flickr photoset have a disc front brake - is that (or will it someday be) an option?

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  • Mike C

    While still keeping the hub dyno, I mean?

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  • Todd (admin)

    Jeff, it really isn't hard. Your heel is there naturally once every pedal revolution anyway. And as this is a large jump, it's not like you're messing with it every other shift.

    I guess I'm glad we can even have a conversation about whether these bikes represent a worrisome departure from "really practical utility cycling," what with their lugged cro-mo construction, generator lighting, rack, full fenders, chain guard, kickstand, bell, super comfy ride, low-maintenance brakes and drivetrain, powder coat, and prices lower than many a car-topper bike or a couple years' auto insurance.

    If people dress attractively, groom themselves, keep a handsome dwelling or garden, notice the color of soup, etc., this is all normal, even admirable. But if their bike is both practical and beautiful, well, that's trying to have cake and eat it too! Some people are deeply attached to the idea of utility cycling as sacrifice. We are on a mission to extirpate this false, harmful idea. Just in case you had it. :-)

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  • Todd (admin)

    Mike, disc brakes with dyno will be an option, just not quite yet. There's an Alfine-based bike in the oven. That bike on Repack is a prototype.

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  • Bruce Alan Wilson
    Bruce Alan Wilson April 9, 2008 at 1:14 pm

    "If people dress attractively, groom themselves, keep a handsome dwelling or garden, notice the color of soup, etc., this is all normal, even admirable. But if their bike is both practical and beautiful, well, that’s trying to have cake and eat it too! Some people are deeply attached to the idea of utility cycling as sacrifice. We are on a mission to extirpate this false, harmful idea. Just in case you had it. :-)"

    There are certain persons on some newsgroups and bulletin boards who seem to have an almost monastic or even anchoritic idea of what a 'bicycle lifestylist' should be. One person on a certain board even asked if having an electric or gas oven was too eco-unfriendly, and was there some way he could cook with just sunlight?

    Not to accuse anyone here; just saying that it is possible to take any good idea too far.

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  • Alan Braggins

    Comparing the operation of the Schlumpf with a hub gear, I'm pretty sure that they couldn't sensibly fit a remotely operated cable without it getting in the way - the hub gear doesn't have the cranks to worry about.

    But as other people have already said, switching range with your foot really isn't a problem. (Also remember with hub gears you can stop pedalling for a moment while you change (in fact with older ones, you _had_ to).)

    You can have an epicyclic bike gearbox which isn't in the hub nor the bottom bracket - see http://www.g-boxx.org/. But it isn't aimed at affordable practical transport bikes.

    Incidentally, you can use a Schlumpf with a rear derailleur if you want. See http://www.greenspeed.com.au/anura_history.html for example, where an 8-speed short cage rear derailleur gives the same range as a typical 24-speed system.
    But combining it with rear hub gears does means an always straight chainline, allowing 1/8" chain and full chainguard.

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  • Val

    Jeff: rather than gripe about how kludgy a description of the Schlumpf shifting sounds on a blog, why not try it? I thought it seemed goofy when I first heard about it, too, but it really works, and the brief pause to shift makes the mechanism basically foolproof, as the pressure needs to be relieved in order to shift anyway. It is worth noting that they make a unicycle hub, too, and that unicycle riders find it easy to learn how to shift by being told about it while riding. As for the style of htese bikes...don't hate them because they're pretty!

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  • Jeff

    I guess I'm just a crank -- if it works for people, that's great. I'm pretty happy with thumbshifters, barcons, twist shifters, and brifters... but then, I don't have any derailleurless bikes, either, and I know internal hub gears bring a new set of design challenges.

    I don't have anything against "prettiness" per se, except that it sometimes seems to dominate the discussion. It's fine with me if a bike is pretty, but it falls around number fifteen on my list of priorities when I'm considering a bike purchase. I'm not sure why the appearance of a bike has become such a mania for people... I know of people who won't flip their stem for a more comfortable position because that's a "fred" thing to do, and it "ruins the lines" of the bike.

    That said, if pretty gets more people riding, then great! Whatever makes people like riding is a good thing.

    On another note -- I checked out the Retrovelo site and couldn't find where the bikes are actually manufactured -- any idea? I wish more bike companies would start publishing that info.

    Good luck with the new product line!

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  • Todd (admin)

    Jeff, current production Retrovelo frames are hand-brazed in Taiwan, with finish and assembly happening in Germany. Earlier Retrovelo frames were made in Germany. I understand the quality and especially the consistency has improved.

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  • Eric

    There's no reason a bike can't be pretty and highly functional. Why spend a load of money on a bike that could be just as functional and much better looking if those who designed it had any sense of style? I think a lot of people are just realizing that all these things aren't mutually exclusive and are starting to demand bikes that look great, ride relatively fast and very comfortably. Same thing goes for cycle clothing!

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  • graham

    My only problem with the Schlumpf equipped bikes is they don't come with a chainguard. I am looking forward to the day I get a *FULL* chaincase, so I can forget about having to service my drivetrain, while riding through salty,gritty, slush. Of which we get far to much of here.

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  • Val

    Graham: here in Seattle, we recently installed a Schlumpf on an Azor with full chaincase. No reason why not; put a chaincase on a Schlumpf bike, or a Schlumpf on a chaincase equipped bike, and, who knows, sooner or later the makers may start speccing them that way. Cheers.

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  • graham

    Val, I was just a bit puzzled as to *why* they didn't put a guard on. You go to the trouble and expense to keep a straight chainline, then don't take advantage of it?

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  • Val

    Graham: I'll bet it's that "style" thing again; they want these bikes to have a sporty, light appearance, evoking the cruisers of the 40s and 50s. Sure, we regard those bikes as slow now, but all the magazine ads of the time showed grinning kids swooping effortlessly around curves at high speed - I think that's the atmosphere they're looking for. A full chaincase makes everyone think of the Omafiets, which is great for sitting up and getting there, but doesn't have so much of the fun connotation. Just speculation, but I'll bet that the design meeting went along those lines. They'll get around to the full chaincase model, just you watch.

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  • Bruce Alan Wilson
    Bruce Alan Wilson April 15, 2008 at 10:48 am

    Val:
    A full chaincase makes everyone think of the Omafiets, which is great for sitting up and getting there, but doesn’t have so much of the fun connotation.

    You may have something there. After all 'Omafiets' means 'nana's bike'--not a very 'hip' or 'mod' or 'with it' image.

    Reply
  • Richie P

    Howdy Todd
    Any chance that Retrovelo might make smaller men's frame sizes in the future? I realize real men shouldn't be afraid to ride a mixte, but still... I'm about 5'6", 29" inseam and a 56cm is just too big for me, I think.

    Reply
  • Todd (admin)

    Richie, the standover height is 32". You might try straddling a broom handle at this height in shoes to see what you think. Bear in mind that the relaxed seat angle and lowish bottom bracket means you'll rarely if ever need to straddle the bike like this anyway. As for future production, I don't know. The Retrovelo guys might step in here with an answer, though.

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  • Richie P

    Thanks for the sppedy reply, Todd. I'll give the 32" broom handle a try. Looking at the gorgeous pictures in Retrovelo's catalog, it looks like the geometry of their frames might be in line with the Dutch-style proportions-- a seat-tube angle in the mid to low 60's, in other words. Am I right?

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  • doug

    i have to give a righteous "hell yeah" for the utility mountain bike bit. i lusted after a solid steel MTB sans-suspension for years before i rescued my trusty 1992 MB-4 out of a muddy ditch last december. most of the original parts were ruined by rust, but the Deore top-mount shifters provide the easiest, smoothest shifting I've ever experienced. added fenders, city bars, and a cetma rack and i can do anything i want with it.

    now i'm going to use it to move 800 miles to seattle.

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  • hhw

    On April 8, Bruce asked why the women's models cost more than the men's -- this was my initial question on seeing the prices, and I didn't find the answer in the comments. This sort of unexplained disparity really bugs me, so I would like to understand what the reason is for it in the bicycle context. Thanks.

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  • Todd (admin)

    I can only speculate why the step-through frames cost more. The frames are more complex. The top tube is bent to a high tolerance, and joined with an additional braze to the downtube. More labor and material right there. And if the step-throughs are produced in lower quantities than the diamond frames, that would also tend to raise the price, as the jigging and process costs are spread across fewer units. With mass-produced items, manufacturers tend to average production costs across models and price accordingly. These are not mass produced.

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  • Bruce A. Wilson
    Bruce A. Wilson May 20, 2008 at 3:16 am

    Of course, talking about 'women's' and 'men's' frames is not really accurate; many women ride diamond frames, and (especially with cargo bikes) some men ride step-through frames. (Indeed, there are some companies--sport bikes rather than transport/utility bikes--that make 'women's diamond frames'--that is diamond frames, but proportioned for a woman's body.)

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  • Joel

    I was in Copenhagen last month (biz) and it sure seemed there were (many) more step-through frames than diamond frames where I looked. (And not so much correlation between type of frame and sex of rider.) So it is possible that economies of scale may favor the step-through frame.

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  • Patrick

    As far as these Oma-style step-through frames goes - they are considered pretty unisex throughout much of Europe and Asia. No one would look askance at a guy riding one of these. I would consider one - the 32 inch standover on the Herren version is definitely too tall for me!

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  • Eddie

    The minimalist chain guard looks great, but how well does it protect the pant leg? My current bike has an extended lip on the chain ring which does nothing to keep my pants clean or from getting caught every time the wind blows from the right. I understand a full chain case can prevent this, but is the guard on the Retrovelo adequate for riding in regular clothes? To be honest, I am looking to commute to work on this bike, but if my slacks are in danger, I can live with my alternate, the azor opa. Regardless, I'm certainly taken with the upright riding position.

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  • Josh

    Eddie: I bought a Retrovelo from Clever Cycles a few weeks ago and the chain guard works wonderfully. I only ride in jeans or khakis and I've not experienced any problems whatsoever, pants always stay clean, etc. It is quite effective, and a great relief as I was really hoping to find (and find I did) a bike that didn't require me to do that silly thing where you roll up one side of your pant leg.

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  • BAW

    I have bought several pairs of golf knickers (or 'breeks'/plus-fours as our British friends call them) for riding. Jhodpurs would do nicely, too.

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  • Mariellen

    I was just in and was so happy to find a real service and quality oriented shop. I fell completely in love with the Klara women's bike. The balloons were so much faster than I expected and I didn't feel like I was riding a clunky "comfort bike" at all. All I felt was the wind in my hair and the joy of riding without pain! I'd like to purchase Klara, but I want to know the specifics of the geometry first (I have to double check with my physical therapist and a bikefitter before I drop that much cash!). I'd need angles and tube lengths etc. but I can't find retrovelo specs anywhere online. Any chance you guys could post some of those here?

    Reply
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