For the last two years, I’ve lived about a block away from South Park. Earlier this year, I snapped a photo at a new bicycle store that had popped up late last year:
The exterior is both striking and very àpropos of this hotbed of Web 2.0:
These display bikes are cleverly locked to the stand. They are also all test-rideable.
There is also a basket of flyers for passerby too shy to come in to the store. From the catalog flyer, I learned that the dog, Simone, is not for sale. 🙁 The day we came inside, Simone wasn’t in but Dawn’s dog, Riley, was subbing for her. He’s not for sale either. 🙁
That would have been the end of things had we not recently decided to move to the Richmond district on the other side of the city. The move necessitates commuting and running errands by bicycle, and Marie had no bicycle she could confidently ride and safely lock. We spent days looking at and test-riding bicycles around the city. And, for some reason, we kept coming back to PUBLIC bikes.
The first time we stopped by, a person on his way out tried to convince her to try one of the bicycles—she didn’t have the time that time. (We would later find out that he was the founder of the company.)
Inside PUBLIC bikes
Inside, Dan was helping a kid and her mother with a Mother’s Day present: a new cream-colored PUBLIC bicycle:
She also got a bell, rack, and a set of panniers:
PUBLIC carries a line of different frames with a variety of gearing. The colors were designed to be “lickable.” so their wall was like being in a candy store.
And yes, almost all the accessories from their website were for sale and on display.
The kid mentioned he first thought the leather handgrips on the upper part of the photo were binoculars. 🙂 You can also see helmets from Nutcase, Bern, and Yakkay—there’s been a revolution in retro-inspired helmets. A year ago, you couldn’t get a Yakkay in the United States—now I found three dealers in San Francisco alone!
There are so many bicycle bells out there, these ones were chosen to complement the PUBLIC bikes. In the background, you can see lighting by Knog, an Australian company. Think of them as the Crumpler of bike accessories.
These gorgeous handmade baskets from Peterboro Basket Company come in three colors and also double as a holder for various other bike accessories in the store.
Test riding a PUBLIC Bicycle
Time for a test ride. Let’s play it safe and try a helmet also:
Doesn’t she look cute in the helmet?
Marie was mostly interested a step-through frame, the only models that have both that and a low maintainance internal geared hub for the hills of San Francisco was the mixte frame. My guess is this is because PUBLIC is pairing the more expensive frame with the more expensive gearing. Note that the 3-speed internals have almost the same range as the 8-speed ones but the gears are spaced far apart—it’s like trying to use the front-shifters vs. rear-shifters on old mountain bicycles.
After a quick adjustment of the saddle of a display bike:
Marie was off and ready for a test ride:
Marie liked the ride of the M8 the best and since a blue one had just been built, she was able to walk out the door with her favorite color and still make her meeting. As members of the SF Bicycle Coalition, we received a 5% discount which has, by my calculation, already paid for her and my membership a few times over. 🙂
Dan sold Marie her bicycle. We saw him again later that day at SF Bike Party.
A PUBLIC bike
Since I received a new lens that day, I took a number of detail shots of the bicycle to test out the lens. (Don’t tell her but the lens cost more than the bicycle.)
Here you can see detailing on the downtube and the fork. This is reminiscent of when steel tubes were joined by brazing them on to lugs. These, like most modern frames, are fused using TiG-welding, which is both cheaper and stronger—an innovation popularized by the mass production of the mountain bicycle.
The frame was built in Taiwan and I assume most of the assembly is done there also. While a few bicycles still have frames made in the U.S. (both my bicycles are), high quality steel is cheaper in Asia. Since they don’t advertise it as such, the chro-moly tubing is straight gauge—makes sense since only one of the designs uses classic tubing and the benchmark weight are department store bicycles made from high-tensile steel. Nowadays a hand-built steel frame manufactured in the U.S. will run you over $1500 for the frameset alone—anything less and it needs to come from overseas.
No single advance has been more instrumental to the growth of the leisure city bike than the popularization of the internally geared hub. If a bicycle was a car, internal gearing is like putting the engine under hood. Yes, it is far less dirty than derailleurs, but the other advantage of this is you can shift while you are stopped. This makes a huge difference unless you cycle all the time.
Now that the derailleur is finally gone, I imagine pretty soon city bikes will come equipped with a belt instead of a messy chain. All we have to do is wait until Shimano makes a cheap, mass-produced version of it. 🙂
Did you know that in the early 80’s, Shimano was known as a manufacturer of high end fishing tackle and low-end bicycle components? What broke the European lock on high-end bicycle components was the invention of the mountain bike. Shimano has actually been making internally-geared hubs almost as long as external derailleurs—over half a century!
(The name “Nexus” was the first time I’ve seen Shimano actually use a real English word in a marketing name. I assume this was accident. Here are some examples of Shimano Engrish: Dura-Ace, Ultegra, Tiagra, Exage, Sora, Deore, Alvio, Alfine, Capreo, Nexave, Dyna-Sys, Hyperglide, BioPace, etc.)
Here you’ll notice at least one difference from the models pictured on the website: recently the company has started shipping all the bicycles with the natural-colored rubber tires instead of just the black ones. It probably simplifies inventory, and makes the bicycle stand out more from others on the street and in stores.
The reflective paint on a sidewall is an interesting selling point of the PUBLIC bike—I’ve never seen it before, but apparently it was popularized by Schwalbe. This particular model is a Kenda Kwest reflective 28×1 5/8″ (700c). Not a big fan of the thick siping on the treads, consumers just don’t have faith in physics.
(Since I get asked this a lot when I bring my bicycle into bike shops, my personal safety solution is to use Scotchlight tape bought from the hardware store. I cut it up and I put it on a quarter of the rim or on some of the spokes.)
I would have preferred if PUBLIC put the reflectivity on the rim instead of on the tire which does eventually wear out. The reason they didn’t is because they paint the rims with the same paint as the rest of the bicycle. In the picture you can see they do the same for their fenders and even the racks which you can purchase separately. This is something unique to PUBLIC as far as I know and this attention to detail is why these bicycles are so distinctive. This detail is certainly a nod to their neighbors who offers fixed-gear bicycles with customizable powder-coated components.
A chainguard is considered a waste of weight to a serious cyclist, but is costume de rigueur for a city bicycle. It also serves the practical purpose of not catching your pant legs or dress in the gears. Nearly every pair of jeans I’ve owned had fallen victim of my chainring-of-death until I learned to bicycle with a bowlegged right leg and (later) built a habit of carrying around a cuff strap clipped to my messenger bags.
PUBLIC puts their brand name on the chainguard only. They do use striping on other parts of the bicycle: the front fork (and on the seat tube in some models) that uses the public colors: robin-egg blue, orange, cream, and chartreuse green—a color palette lifted directly from a Vespa? The choice of a plain all-caps san-serif font is also both retro and forward at the same time. One thing you have to say about Rob Forbes is he knows beautiful design–right down to choosing a complement color from the same palette for the lettering.
(Do you know they do make a PUBLIC bike not in the palette? There is a diamond frame that is available in a utility green that was probably lifted off a really old bicycle in Rob’s garage. I think that model used to have silver fenders also, but I noticed all the literature shows them with green ones.)
This is the engine of the bicycle, but there are a couple of details even here. PUBLIC selected a road dual ring crankset, but they put the main ring on the inner ring and use the outer ring as a guard to keep the teeth from being exposed. This allows them to choose a more elegant chainguard that has the benefit of being lighter. I have noticed this on a couple of other city bicycles from American manufacturers but I assume this comes from Europe. Of course, they chose chrome flat pedals with a pair of reflectors on them—just like you had on your bicycle as a kid.
8-speeds! When I bought my bicycle in the early nineties, 8 speeds were only available in the most expensive road bikes and MTBs, now they are in internal hubs. This is crazy awesome (and adds a few hundred to the cost of the bicycle). The grip shift was invented by SRAM in the U.S. For years, Shimano resisted this design, but I guess the patent expired. That’s good because it is easily the best flat-bar shifter design, and are still usable even when the indexing is off.
Anyone know how to install third party grips when you have gripshifters on the right? Do you just cut them down, and wouldn’t that be terribly ugly?
You can see the colored fender here as well as the lugs necessary to support the mixte design. I took this photo because side pull brakes with enough clearance for a fender look so retro to me. These are as generic as they get today, but did you know when I was growing up, these were the expensive designs. The cheap ones had center-pull calipers.
Note that different models use different cable housing. Because this model used to come with black tires, the cable housing here was black also.
Yes, but does it pass the smell test?
It’s not my bicycle, but I asked some people what they thought about Marie’s new bike.
“Oh, it’s that powder-blue bicycle parked outside? That’s so Marie!”
And it is simpli.st approved!
Buy a PUBLIC bicycle today
I want to write later about alternatives, but if you like what you see, I’m told PUBLIC bikes sells nearly assembled bicycles (and ships the tools to complete it) over the internet.
And, if you are near San Francisco, you can always stop by 123 South Park:
My only complaint if you decide to buy from the store, they still fill out the order on the website, so you may want to memorize your SFBC discount code before you go. It’s painfully slow. 😀
I don’t want to rush you, but if you order today, they have free shipping or $125 discount on accessories.
And we are off
Now that Marie has a bicycle she isn’t afraid to ride, we’ve been going out on rides about four times a week. In my snarkier moments, I refer to her PUBLIC as “the SUV of bicycles” because of her upright riding position and posh ride. She doesn’t mind since the mileage on this “SUV” is very good. 😀
I was shocked to realize that not only has my commute bicycle has reached the age of 18, it’s been years since I’ve written about cycling. I’ll hopefully be writing more about the bicycle in the coming months. In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed this article.