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Roy Wallack of the LA Times: Gear Section – Laid-Back on Two Wheels

Roy Wallack: Gear
Laid-Back on Two Wheels

LATimes, October 9, 2006

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Benno Baenziger ought to be blushing. In two years’ time, the Townie bicycle he designed turned his Vista, Calif.-based Electra Bicycle Co. – the little beach cruiser company he co-founded 14 years ago – into an industry player and the bike was copied by several major brands.

With their chopper-like frames that lower the seat, push the cranks forward and raise the handlebars, the Townie and its ilk eliminate the fear of falling and the back, neck and hand discomfort that can come with conventional bikes’ lean-forward position. The result: Riders can place their feet on the ground while seated and ride with a comfy heads-up, straight-back position on wide, cushy seats. These so-called flat-foot bikes aren’t the greatest hill climbers – it’s hard to stand up out of the saddle – but they are comfy for all-day riding, will usually accommodate everyone from preteens to 6-footers and come with a wide-screen, picture-window view of the world that other bikes can’t touch.

schlick-shark-1.jpgSchlick Shark: The Harley of the bike world.

Likes: Sleek, jaw-dropping looks, with the natural laid-back feel of a touring motorcycle. The first bike from Milwaukee bike geek/software engineer John Schlick, the Shark achieves Townie-type comfort with an innovative, artistic frame featuring a series of arcing aluminum tubes. Instead of a seat post, the seat slides fore and aft on integrated frame tubes. Eight-speed drivetrain uses a clean internal hub, eliminating potential chain skipping. Dynamo front hub allows you to plug in a generator light.

Dislikes: High price for beauty. Does not turn as well in tight quarters as other bikes, due to the longer handlebars and wheelbase.

Price: $2,489. (262) 790-0723;

electra-160×108.jpgElectra Townie 21 700C: Fast version of the classic Townie, with tall 700C road-racing wheels rather than mountain-bike wheels.

Likes: 21-speed aluminum-framed bike has faster cruising speed than smaller-wheeled bikes, making it surprisingly suitable for long-distance commuting, touring and serious fitness training. Includes rack mounts for panniers and cargo.

Dislikes: The larger, narrower wheels and tires have a harsher ride than the smaller, wider ones.

Price: $400. (800) 261-1644;

giant-160×107.jpgGiant Suede SS: Simple, comfortable, aluminum-framed single-speed.

Likes: Comfortable position and clean looks. Virtually maintenance-free; no derailleur cables to get in the way or break down. Stopping power supplied by front-wheel hand brake and simple coaster brake we all used as kids; just backpedal slightly to slow down. Enclosed chain guard keeps grease off long pant legs.

Dislikes: Single-speed version is slow due to lack of gearing.

Price: Single speed $270; 24-speed Giant Suede DX bike, $330. (Multispeed models run $340-$370.) (800) US-GIANT;

cannondale-160×104.jpgCannondale Daytripper Seven: Agile 7-speed bike with a design halfway between a regular bike and a Townie.

Likes: Good looks. Good handling, due to a shorter wheelbase and the seat not pushed back as far as the other review bikes. Includes a bell, dual handbrakes, chain guard and a suspension fork.

Dislikes: Does not feel as laid-back and comfortable as the others. The design leaves the cockpit a bit shorter and more cramped, and the seat higher (so you stand tippy-toed, not flat-footed, on the ground).

Price: $599. (800) 245-3872;