Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on December 19th, 2006 at 2:53 pm
When I first saw the Electra Amsterdam in an ad in Bicycling Magazine I was stunned. Not just by the bike's drop-dead gorgeous looks, but because of what the bike signified to the U.S. bike industry and American cycling in general.
U.S. companies have long offered various city and commuter bikes, but none of them has ever captured the design elegance, romance, and simple functionality of the archetypal Dutch city bikes ridden for decades in the most bike-friendly cities on earth.
Most American attempts I've seen have either catered too much to the lycra-set, or have been so expensive and/or woefully geeky looking that a large demographic of potential cyclists would never be compelled to ride them.
If we want those "interested but concerned" Americans to take more short trips by bike, we must offer them a bike that is simple to operate, efficient, affordable, and most importantly, has a design that strokes their ego.
The new Electra Amsterdam accomplishes all those things...and does it with style.
Before I get into my impressions of riding the Amsterdam, there are a few things you should know.
I'm about 6' 2" and weigh around 175 pounds. My riding background and style is more racer than charity-rider and around town I usually (when I'm not on an organized, fun ride) take a no-nonsense, get-to-my-destination-quickly riding style.
About the bike
I tested the "Classic" model which has an internal Shimano Nexus 3-speed, steel frame, alloy rims and a coaster brake. Retail is $550 and the bike weighs 39 lbs. [The "Sport" version is lighter (30 lbs) and comes with an aluminum frame but without some accessories.]
OK, on with the test.
Before throwing a leg over it, I stared at the bike to take in all the features. I noticed tasteful pinstriping, classic, yet-evolved frame angles, ample fenders, faux leather grips and saddle, and tastefully chromed accents. Taken all together, this bike has outstanding curb appeal, without looking forced or fake like a mid-life crisis Harley.
Missing from the Amsterdam is that quintessential Dutch bike feature, the rear-wheel lock. I suspect this is something that got left on the design-room floor to help hit the sub-$600 price point.
I like how they made the stout pannier rack attach to the seat tubes via integrated slots in the seatpost collar. That's a nice touch. And on the other end, Electra gave the rack big loops to hook your panniers and bungees to.
But looks only get you so far in this business. The real test is how the bike rides and holds up on the street.
Ace Bike Gallery mechanic Brett Flemming -- who built up my test bike -- said the Amsterdam went together pretty well. His only nitpick were the crank bolt caps. They didn't quite fit the sculpted crank arms (which have been made custom for the Amsterdam) and were difficult to install (he suggested rubber push-in caps). Sure enough, upon returning the bike yesterday, I noticed one of them had fallen off.
My only other issue was that the shnazzy rear wheel cover/fenders popped off somehow and I had to fanangle them back on to prevent the rear tire from rubbing. This was merely a minor annoyance and was easily fixed, but I wondered if it would happen again.
Once I stopped looking the bike over and threw a leg over it, my first impression was the size and reach of the handlebars. They were much larger than I expected. At first they reminded me of a beach cruiser and I really hoped this bike would be more of a serious, get-around town machine (but I should just learn to mellow out I guess).
Sitting squarely on the saddle (which is quite cushy and stylish) the bars deliver the "leatherette" grips a mere foot or so from my ribcage. I felt like I was sitting in my living room on my favorite chair, arms resting on armrests. The position -- although different than I'm used to -- was immediately comfortable.
Electra is well known for the "Flat Foot Technology," a design puts the saddle and cranks in such a position so that "when the rider is sitting on the saddle, his or her feet can still stand flat on the ground."
While not as drastic as their Townie models, the Flat Foot Technology still came through, resulting in a just-relaxed-enough position.
But with bikes, as in life, there's no free lunch. The comfy riding position means that the bike isn't quite as efficient and speedy as I prefer. Also, the slightly laid-back position, combined with the large sway of the handlebars meant that getting out of the saddle wasn't as easy or graceful looking as I would have liked.
As for climbing, I found the 3-speed (with a 38 tooth chainring up front) to offer a nice range of gears. But make no mistake about it, this bike is not for the West Hills commuter, but it's fine for short grinds and most hills around Portland.
Coming to a stop at the bottom of hills, I was pleasantly surprised by the feel of the coaster brake. You can sort of feather the brake before it really engages. And it's a strong brake too. In wet conditions, I slammed in reverse and the coaster brake responded solidly. I'm used to coaster brakes skidding and being either on or off, but with the Amsterdam, the feel is much more modulated and smooth.
And speaking of smooth, the Shimano Nexus twist shifter is like butta'. Compared to all the finicky, old Sturmey-Archer 3-speeds on Schwinns in my basement, I could shift with the flick of my wrist, even while pedaling.
The creature comforts (braking, shifting, geometry) of this bike are very well done and it's clear that Electra did their homework, but where this bike really shines is in its handsome stance and Hollywood good looks.
I'm not the only one who was compelled by the Amsterdam's distinctive styling. As I rode the bike around town, I noticed lots of stares (the best ones came from people in their cars!). One hipster in front of a coffee place really liked what she saw. Astride a beautiful, pink, vintage Italian, DIY fixie, she commented that it would be great for her friends that aren't has "hardcore" as she is.
Several people said the bike reminded them of old Raleigh 3-speeds. One guy on Mississippi Street did a complete 180 as I rode by him. I looped back around to give him a closer look and he said it reminded him of an old Japanese commuter bike he used to own.
As the days passed, I found myself appreciating the leisurely vibe of the Amsterdam more and more. It's a bike that demands nothing of the rider. You can simply get on and get going and suddenly you're comfortable, enjoying the ride, and because of the upright position the bike affords, you can take in the city in ways you may have been missing...and you look oh so stylish all the while.
In the end, this bike will be a big success for Electra and with any luck, its dashing design, comfortable ride, and utility-based features will give more Americans that gentle yet all-important nudge to finally leave their cars in the driveway and go by bike.
If you have specific questions about the Amsterdam, let me know in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them. And don't forget, you've got until the end of the month to enter the raffle for you chance to win one for yourself!
To get your own impression of this bike, visit your local Bike Gallery and tell them you heard about the Amsterdam on BikePortland.org.
[See all the photos in my Electra Amsterdam gallery (some images taken by Ethan Jewett / Stickeen).]