It's been almost a year since I built and started flogging the strange hybrid beast that we named the Saison (a saison
is a Belgian farmhouse beer style whose wild yeast strains produce a light body but strong earthy flavor). The idea was to build a bike that could balance the toughness and "fuhgeddaboutit" maintenance interval of one of the Dutch bikes with the speed and acceleration of a modern American commuter. Strong wheels, a strong frame, internally geared drivetrain, disc brakes, full fenders, and a comfortable riding position were required. Add a few little extra touches for comfort (carbon bar and 28c Tserv tires) and style (gold Nokon brake housing and gold grips), and I was ready to go.
Predictably, I couldn't let myself simply order a frame designed to do exactly what I intended for it (they exist). Instead, I decided to use the wrong-est
frame to build this multi-speed city bike: a single-speed mountain bike. The Surly 1x1. And yes, I am perfectly aware of the abject silliness of this premise. That said, measure the actual radius of a 26" wheel with tire, and a 700c wheel with tire, and you'll find a surprisingly small difference. Measure the wheel/tire clearance of a 1x1 and you'll run out of measuring tape; you could lose a medium-sized child in the depths of that gigantic rear triangle. Even with tires half again the size there would be plenty of room for nice beefy fenders, too.
With tough steel tubes, convenient horizontal dropouts, and easily adjustable brake caliper mounts, the Surly would have been a fair bet even if it weren't super cheap
. And deep down, who doesn't want to ride "the thing that should not be"?
Lace up a wheelset: light-ish rims made for 29'er mountainbikes on a Shimano Alfine
hub (the stealth-bomber version of the eight-speed hubs in our Workcycles bikes) and a mostly-matchy front hub, and slap them into the frame.
Throw on the rest of the parts. Get a different crankset because the chainstays are so wide
that the arms of the compact road crank I'd planned on using wouldn't even come close to clearing...wow. Bend the fender stays and install spacers to clear the brake calipers. Install lights on the brake bosses because they're just sitting there doing nothing. Install the KitchenAid headbadge because this is supposed to be an appliance, right?
The first impression of the ride is the quickness: even though it's a big bike with a wide bar, it feels very nimble and responsive. You just point your shoulders and the bike zips that way. It's difficult to sufficiently emphasize the nimble feel of the bike and the resulting confidence: the handling is so intuitive that maneuvers that would be nerve-wracking on a more conventional bike just happen naturally and with little fanfare. The wheels and frame are highly rigid, and even with relatively big tires and the flex of the carbon handlebar the ride isn't Dutchbike-smooth, but it's not punishing.
The Alfine hub and shifter snap off quick, positive gear changes with almost no lag or interruption of power transfer. The disc brakes (Avid BB7 calipers and Shimano XTR levers) offer a surfeit of power and smooth enough modulation to keep it under control, although after putting in the miles on our roller brake-equipped city bikes they feel surprisingly aggressive.
Now, after a year of riding around Seattle, up and down stairs, through alleys, around parks and pump tracks, through street brawls and farmer's markets, and over every nasty piece of pavement and road debris I could find, I can actually evaluate the bike. It has commuted, gone on dates, shopped, and pubcrawled. It's been taken on countless test rides, and borrowed for extended periods. Through it all the Saison has required very little of its rider in terms of either maintenance or even basic consideration. After a few adjustments for break-in, the mechanical systems have functioned as close to flawlessly as any bike I've ridden. A little chain lube every few weeks, and the occasional stack of batteries for the cheap blinky lights I can't seem to get around to replacing with a sexy generator setup. It's not quite as impossibly maintenance-free as a Workcycles bike, but it's not too far off.
I can explain the experience of living with this bike best by calling it "enough." It's tough enough that even through the year of abuse I've barely had to think about it, while remaining light enough to accelerate and climb with pizazz. It's fast enough to really feel
fast, and -- most important of all -- fun enough that I consistently want to ride it. The best bike is, after all, the one that you ride.
With a somewhat less extravagant component selection, you can have one for right around $1700. We're custom building each one of these for the time being, so even though you're dodging the challenging "experimentation phase" of a project like this you can still have plenty of input on the specifics of your Saison. An albatross bar
, a Brooks B67 saddle and 38mm wide tires for a more "Dutch" feel? A narrow cut-down riser bar and racy tires for tackling traffic? A Workcycles Transport-style front cargo carrier?
No problem. Have a tall, chilly glass of Saison.