Posted by: ham8cheese | November 5, 2009

my search for a unicorn

In my search for a bike that fit my 5’2″ frame, I think I underestimated how difficult it would be. As I slowly realized, most bike manufacturers make bike frames in the 15″ and up range. The bike industry seems to have basically wholly ignored the segment of the adult population that is 5’3″ and under. I mean, yes, I’m pretty small, but the average female height is about 5’4″. So I’m not wildly far off from the mean. Yet there are very few bikes out there for someone like me. (BIKE INDUSTRY, ARE YOU LISTENING??)

I took my first test rides at American Cyclery by Golden Gate Park. They were nice, but did not seem to fully grasp my issue with needing a smaller bike. I ended up test-riding the Specialized Vita, the lovely Bianchi Milano Parco, and the Specialized Globe San Francisco 2. I found myself struggling to find differences between my existing bike and these test bikes; the reality was that they didn’t feel dramatically different — meaning that I still felt a little awkward on these bikes, a little wobbly, a little unsteady.

The Bianchi Milano Parco - cappuccino to go, please!

The Bianchi Milano Parco (which really is a fine looking bike) has 26″ wheels and a 3-speed internal hub; the smallest frame size is 16.5″. The frame was still a little big – the standover height was a bit tall for me, with the top tube was uncomfortably close to my sensitive bits. I liked the internal hub – the shifting was a refreshingly smooth improvement on the Cypress DX – but was worried that the 3-speeds were impractical for the San Francisco hills. Of the 3 bikes, this one was the frontrunner, and I started considering the Bianchi Milano Citta, which has 8 speeds, in a step-through frame.

Because the Bianchi Milano seemed to be an improvement over my existing bike, I started looking around for similar bikes – bikes with 26″ wheels, similar handlebar positioning, a step-through frame, no suspension fork, and at least 8 speeds. This led me to Fresh Air Bicycles, an awesome little bike shop on Divis and California run by a guy named Howell. When I wheeled my bike in and explained I was looking for something that would fit me better, he took one look at my bike and told me his honest opinion: you already have a good bike, and it’s the right size for you. He was wrong, in my view, on the size issue — but I appreciated that he was decidedly not applying used-car-salesman-type sales tactics. I ended up test riding the raspberry-hued Raleigh Circa 1.0 in a 13″ frame, which was a pretty fun ride but felt (and looked) like a little girl bike. Mr. Spoke came back with me on another weekend, and we both test rode the Raleigh Circa 2.0, which is similar to the 1.0 but has an internal hub (which allows you to shift gears even when stopped). On that test ride, I decided that the gears on that bike were in a lower range than I’d like (meaning it tended to be too easy to pedal).

So my loyalties flitted back to the Bianchi Milano Citta. I discovered that the 2010 model came in a red frame with cream fenders (sigh). I fretted about the $599 price tag (not a lot for a real bike, but it seemed like a lot for a newbie like me). I also continued to wonder about the wisdom of a getting a new bike whose frame size was really not much different from the one I already had. Was a 16.5″ frame really the right size for me?

Laughably, Mr. Spoke and I even spent one evening measuring various bits of me and plugging my stats into various bicycle fitting formulas. I discovered that 1) the formulas were intended for racing style riders; and 2) the formulas appeared to severely overestimate the size of the frame that was right for me. I tried to use the Rivendell Bicycle Works formula – they may make beautiful bikes, but their formula estimated that I should be riding an 18 or 19″ frame based on my PBH. Huh?

The Novara Pulse.

Finally, I noticed that REI had a small-framed commuter bike on sale (and I am not a girl who can resist a sale): the Novara Transfer, which comes in a 13.5″ frame. In what turned out to be a stroke of good luck, the San Francisco store did not have the bike in stock. (Instead, I test rode the Novara Fusion – a really nice road bike that was super fun and zippy to ride – but outside my budget.) So last Sunday, Mr. Spoke and I trooped off to the Corte Madera REI, where Mr. Spoke spotted the bright orange 2009 Novara Pulse – “a unicorn!” he called it: an honest-to-goodness road bike with 26″ wheels. I did try out the Novara Transfer in the 13.5″ frame – it was a fine bike.

But the Novara Pulse was the first bike I had gotten on that actually felt right. In addition to 26″ road tires, it has a shorter crankset, a smaller cockpit (and shorter top tube), and a smaller wheelbase. (Later on I learned that there is a whole online community of petite women out there who ride this bike, especially in cyclocross, in addition to twelve-year-old boys.) Most importantly for me, the Novara Pulse just had that je ne sais quoi – it was the one. I kept riding it around the REI parking lot, loving how zippy it was, how smoothly the gears shifted, and how much fun I was having. Mr. Spoke told me it is the only bike I have test-ridden that’s made me laugh. Sold!

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