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A Cruiser is Not a Mule

June 30, 2010

… And Other Thoughts on Bike Commuting.

When I got my Electra Cruiser, I definitely got it with the intention of using it as my commuter bike. Perhaps the name itself should have suggested to me that these bikes were not exactly designed for work – hauling groceries, carrying books, sporting panniers… the word ‘cruise’ itself suggests little of those activities. But I got my Electra Cruiser because I was looking for …

  • an attractive everyday bike
  • a bike with a step through frame for easy mounting and dismounting while wearing skirts and dresses (which make up a large portion of my wardrobe)
  • a bike with upright seating
  • a bike with a comfortable seat for little to no bum pain
  • a bike that wouldn’t brake the bank

While my husband tried to talk me into sportier or more ergonomic bike than the easy laid-back models I had in mind, I’m glad he finally conceded and even searched Craigslist relentlessly until he found my ‘Mojito’. He purchased this bike for me while I was still in Germany and so I had no idea what to expect until coming home and meeting my new ride. I thought I’d put together a brief review on the pros and cons of a cruiser for anyone searching for a commuter bike with the same criteria as listed above…

PROS:

Aesthetics - this may not be something you care about, but I had been seduced by the plethora of gorgeous bikes dotting the streets of Munich and by much of the bicycle eye candy floating on the interwebs, so a gorgeous bike it had to be. In this department, I would score my cruiser pretty high up. There are a few sleeker Dutch bikes that make my heart flutter even more, but overall, the pretty green color with the floral embellishments; the matching embellished seat; the gorgeous curved frame; and the beautiful symmetry of the large wheels create a very pleasing effect in my book. And apparently not just in my book, as confirmed by the many compliments ‘Mojito’ receives when we go out.

Ergonomics – my cruiser is a single speed bike with coaster brakes (you pedal backwards). I had feared that it would be strange to not have brake access at my hands and that the big lumbering single speed bike might be beautiful but not so practical for hills or longer rides. My worst fear was that I would get home after having pestered my husband for an entire year to find me a gorgeous replacement bike for my mountain bike only to find myself secretly wanting to hop on said mountain bike for the ease of handling. But that was not the case. Although the mountain bike with its multiple gear options and sportier design sounds like it might handle better, it being a pretty low end bike results in the opposite. I was surprised to see how much easier I was riding up hills and covering town in this new bike. Read: Quality in manufacturing goes a long way – a better built and designed single speed cruiser turns out to be much zippier than a three speed cheap mountain bike. The Electra Cruiser lines also offer bikes with three speed internal hub gears, should you want a bit more power and control.

Practicality - In terms of being the kind of everyday ride I was looking for, this bike certainly fits the bill. I needed something that would allow me to wear the same things I would sans bike and that wouldn’t require me to alter my style and wardrobe choices. The upright seating, the step through frame, and the big comfortable seat makes me think that I’m riding the Cadillac of bikes – roomy, comfortable, and sturdy. It handles bumps and potholes easily and I can step on and off without any compromising contortions or leg raises in my dresses or skirts.

CONS:

Loadability – (ok, not really a word, but it should be). When it comes to cons, this is the main thing that someone looking to own a cruiser as a commuter bike should take into account. Original vintage cruisers from the 50s or 60s were actually made with function in mind, so they would be fitted with a rear rack that would support your cargo, such as this vintage Schwinn cruiser below:

It appears that modern cruisers are made as ‘Fashion’ bicycles and thus with less of a carting agenda in mind. While Electra does make rear racks for their cruisers, they are not part of the standard design which favors the clean look of the ‘bare’ rear tire showing off the bike’s curves:

I took my cruiser to the local bike shop and had the owner check it out. He agreed that it would be possible to outfit the bike with a rear rack but noted that it would require an extender piece to attach the rear rack to the seat post and that it would involve a custom job requiring some extra expenses.

Electra’s custom rear racks made for their cruisers are available online and can be added to cruisers that are from the year 2006 or newer and have 26″ wheels. As you can see, they have an extra long attachment piece that would go below the seat hooking unto the seat post:

If you’re like me, and are used to just rigging up bike parts from existing bikes in your storage, the cruiser throws a wrench in those plans. I had planned on moving the rear rack of an older bike unto my cruiser but due to its incompatibility in size, I would have to either purchase the extension pieces or a specially made Electra cruiser rack.

For now, I use a combination of my front basket and a backpack or messenger bag for carrying my belongings. I feel safer with my laptop tucked safely in my bag and my remaining items sitting in my basket. The basket itself is nothing short of wonderful: it sits snugly in place without moving even when hitting potholes and uneven pavement, unclips easily when arriving at my destination for conveniently toting my things inside, and it can hold up to 11 lbs (which is similar to approximately a gallon of milk and some change). It is this Electra detachable wicker basket, which I’m awarding with five gold stars:

Overall, the pros outweigh the cons in my book and I would whole heartedly recommend an Electra cruiser bike to anyone looking for a comfortable and stylish daily ride. But if you’re looking for something to tote your belongings and with which to shop or run errands, be aware of the somewhat more complicated route to outfitting your cruiser with carrying accessories. Its unique frame and size requires specialty accessories and custom fitted racks, which may end up running up your spending a bit more. But then again, if you’re in the market for a stylish ride, you’ve probably already decided against getting a packing mule to cart your load. My cruiser may not carry as much, but it sure looks nicer and it smells prettier too. S.

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28 Comments leave one →
  1. June 30, 2010 16:15

    I completely understand aesthetics being very important on your list of bike traits. I picked my first bike primarily for comfort and ease of riding with a step-through frame, but am beginning to wonder if I should have gone with a road/mountain bike instead. My area is very hilly and I’m not sure if I just can’t get the hang of using the gears or if it’s just not good for hills in general. Drives me crazy when my husband zips up a hill on his road bike :) I’m glad to hear that you think your Electra is great with hills since that will be at the top of my list of criteria for a bike in the future! I keep trying to find a route without hills, but no such luck – they are everywhere! The worse ones are those that climb gradually, but forever, then hardly level off before climbing again – ugh!

    • June 30, 2010 16:59

      T – I was surprised how well my Electra cruiser handles the hills where I live, but I would say they’re only of the small or moderate variety. If I lived in a hillier area with steeper inclines, I don’t know if I wouldn’t want something sportier. The problem with a road bike where I live is that the pavement is often so uneven and you’re often riding over potholes, cracked and rough surfaces, etc. that the wider tires of a cruiser (or mountain bike) are a must.

      S.

      • July 1, 2010 01:26

        Thanks, S. I think I have the “best” of both worlds – a lot of hills and poor pavement! Not sure there is a bike that will fit both of those :) My bike has the slightly wider tires also and until you mentioned that aspect I hadn’t really thought about it. Maybe the solution is for me to develop better endurance and then the hills will be no problem at all regardless of type of bike – haha!

        Traci

  2. June 30, 2010 17:46

    For a perfect mix between style and hill-handling, I’d recommend the English Roadster (old Raleigh or new Pashley). It has a very upright sitting posture (though not quite so much as a typical Dutch bike), but the frame geometry supports you being able to push with the right muscles more than with a cruiser-style bike, so it makes climbing the hills and such considerably easier. They are also great load-carrying bikes (my wife’s still needs a rear rack, but it shouldn’t be that hard to do), look beautiful, and are also the type of bike you can just hop on in whatever you’re wearing (in fact, they also often have skirt/coat guards). We can do nearly all of our grocery shopping, library trips, farmers market – really, anything we need to do regularly we at least sometimes do by bike with them.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/poetas/4700072707/
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/poetas/4442758363/

    My wife and I started out with Electra Amsterdams, which, while being styled more after Dutch bikes, are really designed more like cruisers, and after getting our old Raleighs about a year later, we were honestly shocked at how much less effort we had to exert to pedal them, despite them being even heavier.

    You don’t necessarily need a sporty bike to handle hills (and there are some fairly large ones in Portland), but having a bike with the right setup can be important. This post from one of our local bike shops, Clever Cycles, explains the differences between some of the bike types:

    http://clevercycles.com/2007/06/26/dutchness/

    I know a price tag in the range of $1000 for a new Pashley or Retrovelo can seem daunting, but think about it – if it’s going to be your primary means of transportation, think about how much cheaper that is than car ownership, or even bus passes. $1000 one time with very very little spent in maintenance ever (we’ve probably spent $50/year or less on normal routine maintenance stuff). Sometimes it’s worth it to wait, save up, and get something you’ll love than just get what you can afford immediately.

    Just something to consider if just buying a bike, or if you’re looking to buy a new one. You don’t need a sporty bike with 21 speeds to handle hills and carry loads, a 3-speed Roadster might do the trick, as long as you’re not in a hurry.

    • July 1, 2010 01:10

      Dave – thanks for the links and bike recommendations. I’m definitely going to try and check out an English Roadster, since hills are my main concern but I absolutely hate road bikes! Did you find your bikes locally or order them from another place?

      Traci

      • July 1, 2010 15:38

        Ours we found locally via Craigslist – they’re old ones, mine is a 1953 and my wife’s is a 1980.

        Unfortunately, I can’t give any suggestions on where to find one in Atlanta… but give it a go and see what you can find.

        Also, just simply riding your bike a lot for normal everyday stuff will definitely increase your endurance, and you won’t even notice it happening until one day you’ll be riding up a hill and think to yourself – “hey, this was hard a few months ago…” :)

        One of the great things about riding a bike – personal growth through normal daily stuff.

  3. Blume permalink
    June 30, 2010 19:18

    We recently outfitted my mother-in-law’s cruiser with a standard rear rack from another bike, with only a little hacking required. The standard Planet Bike racks ( http://tiny.cc/7vkz6 ) already have two parts that stick out from the back and attach to the rear stays, and by putting a bend in them, we were able to attach them. The metal was pliable enough to bend (granted, with a decent amount of force), while remaining strong enough that the rack is stable.

    I’m glad you’re still happy with the cruiser!

    • June 30, 2010 19:39

      Blume, I couldn’t get the link to open but what you wrote sounds pretty good – way to go in making a rack work on your own. I got pretty discouraged in the bike shop when they explained to me all the things it would take to make the rack fit. It’s probably not as complicated as they made it sound, but also not as easy as just moving any ol’ rack from one bike to another, as I was used to doing. (Er…having my husband do for me, if I’m being honest here.) Good to know that a bit of creativity and brute force went a long way.

      Yes, despite the carting issues, I still love this cruiser! I think it will be a while until I leave the honeymoon stage.

  4. Kelly permalink
    June 30, 2010 19:23

    I have a Raleigh Venture 4.0 with a rack/basket on the back which I ADORE.
    http://www.raleighusa.com/bikes/comfort/venture-4/

    Cute, comfy, practical, and with enough gears to get me up the hilly city streets of Pittsburgh!

    I love your new blog!

  5. June 30, 2010 19:35

    Dave – thanks so much for taking the time to write such a detailed comment! You’re right – I’ve been eyeing the new Pashleys for a while, they’re just out of my price range right now. But I’m hoping that at some point, I can upgrade to something like that, so your review is very much appreciated. It’s nice to continue to learn of options that meet my criteria for what I’m looking for in a bike without having to settle for a bike that rides well but doesn’t look like what I’d want my bike to look like.

    S.

  6. June 30, 2010 19:49

    Your new Electra is so gorgeous! Thank you for talking about all the pros and cons. I’m thinking about getting an Electra or a Dutch bike eventually. For now though, my vintage Schwinn is working great.

  7. Emily permalink
    July 1, 2010 22:12

    My boyfriend and I went bike shopping together for my new bike. He wanted me to have a bike that could keep up with his. All I wanted was a cruiser small enough that my feet could touch the ground that would also go well with all of my favorite sun dresses. The bike shops laughed at us. Finally, we compromised and I got a sleek commuter bicycle – 21 speed Globe Carmel with 700c wheels. I’m in LOVE with it. Although it is not as adorable as most cruisers, I can ride the bike for miles and still keep up with my boyfriend.

  8. July 5, 2010 23:21

    I see a lot of Electra cruisers around town and they are pretty. I’ve have to switch out the handlebars though since I find them rather awkward, especially when I have to stand up and pedal up a hill.

    I understand about the aesthetics. I’m very attracted to simple lines and elegant step-through frames. I love my Breezer for that reason and it’s very functional. Unfortunately, I’m pretty obsessed with the Workcycles Oma, as ridden by Dottie at LGRAB. I suppose there is nothing wrong with a bike fleet.

    • July 6, 2010 13:03

      Karen, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment! I’m excited to have found your site and look forward to perusing it now. I agree, the Oma is beautiful and looks super useful, and I really like the Electra Amsterdams as well.

  9. Lori permalink
    July 6, 2010 16:42

    I have an Electra Amsterdam that I love. I use it as a commuter bike. The more I use it, the more cargo options I have been adding. I have the same basket as you and I also added an Electra rack. I strapped a basket from the Container Store (http://www.containerstore.com/shop/storage/handledBinsBaskets?productId=10023448) to it, which is working out well. My husband gave me a set of Wald folding baskets for my birthday that I haven’t mounted yet, but am looking forward to the extra space.

    When I commute, I park my bike in a Bikelink (www.bikelink.org) bike cage. This actually presents a challenge because the cages seem to have been designed for smaller bikes. I can fit my Electra in there, but it takes some effort, and most days I leave off my front basket to make it easier. That’s also why I wanted the collapsible side baskets for the rear — if they didn’t collapse they would prevent me from getting my bike into the “cage.”

    • Amanda B permalink
      July 29, 2010 16:36

      Lori (and also S.) –

      I just acquired my brand new Electra Amsterdam 3i yesterday and I am so excited! I had a rear rack installed at the bike shop but haven’t decided yet on a front storage solution. S. – you mentioned that you prefer to keep your laptop in your backpack on your person but this is one of the reasons I ride a bike – so I don’t have to be my own mule. Do either of you think a laptop – in a padded case/bag – would be unsafe on a rear rack or front tray or basket? Or would the saddle bag option be a better choice?

      • July 29, 2010 16:49

        I don’t mean to butt in, but I think carrying a laptop in a padded case or bag on your back rack should be fine, especially if it’s turned off (the biggest worry you have is the hard drive, which is just about the only moving part, and when turned off, it’s not moving).

        In a saddle bag or basket is probably a little better, as it won’t take quite as much shock, but I think it should be fine in a padded case on the back rack. Another option would be to attach a hook to the back rack, coming off the side, that the laptop bag could hook onto and hang similarly to how a pannier would hang. Might be better or worse depending on how bumpy your ride is.

      • July 29, 2010 22:26

        Amanda B – I am so jealous of your new Amsterdam! I hope you’re enjoying your new ride!

        As for the laptop question, I really don’t know that there is a high risk with carrying it on the bike itself (rather than your back). I think Dave makes excellent points about turning it off and securing it to your bike. I would take into consideration how bumpy your commute is and whether it seems like it would absorb less shocks while strapped to your body.

        I just decided for myself that it works better in a backpack because I only have that front basket (not rear rack or panniers) and because parts of my commute are on awful cracked sidewalks that really jolt the bike up and down. Because I can rise out of my seat when it’s really bumpy and have my legs absorb the shock, I feel like my bag gets less shaken around than my bike basket.

        But I would think that your laptop should be fine if it’s turned off and you have a good sturdy carrying set-up on your bike to ride that way instead of on your back.

        S.

  10. Amanda B permalink
    July 30, 2010 14:08

    Thanks for all the advice! I’m new to biking-as-commuting-with-important-cargo so this is really helpful.

    As a side note, S., I am a PhD student (who also teaches) and a big fan of Academichic so I am thrilled to begin biking, with style. Your blogs are actually what helped me find the Dutch bike solution – so thanks!

    • July 30, 2010 14:30

      Amanda – so glad I could help! And I’m so excited to hear of another bike commuting fellow grad student. And so glad to hear that my blogs were of help to someone out there. I still feel like a newbie in the cycling community myself, so it’s great that I’ve been able to pass on a little knowledge while I still feel like I’m learning a lot as I go. Thanks for your comments!

  11. August 12, 2010 14:57

    Thanks for the detailed review. I think of cruisers as “american city bikes” in a way, but from what I have seen, the quality of the design and the resulting ride quality can vary wildly. It sounds like Electra has managed to put together a cruiser with a good ride quality, where i’ve ridden some older, more traditional beach cruisers that were so poorly designed that they could handle nothing more than a flat “cruise”. Nowadays there seems to be something of a cruiser revival, with many options including multiple gears, derailer gears, and so forth. I myself prefer a more traditional city bike, but I am glad to see that people are using these bikes for daily transportation.

    patrick

    • August 12, 2010 15:11

      Patrick – I agree, a cruiser is not an ideal city bike but I am impressed with how well this Electra cruiser handles. So impressed that I would recommend it to someone over a mountain bike as a commuter. It’s sturdy and comfortable and, although single speed, takes hills surprisingly well. I got it because we found it for an awesome deal on Craigslist and I wanted an upright bike that was nicer than my Mongoose mountain bike for daily commutes. I would still eventually want to upgrade, but for now, I’m impressed with how well its handling.

  12. March 17, 2011 04:52

    I had to admire your great and laudable work you have mentioned some cool points…….

  13. Mark permalink
    April 10, 2014 17:01

    Beautifully written assessment, and great pics!!!

  14. Maja permalink
    May 11, 2014 15:02

    thank you for taking the time to write such a good article. made me very confident with my new purchase while waiting for the day i could pick it up :)

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