For most of the past two years I have primarily been a walker. I had been living in a loft above a downtown commercial building and had abundant retail opportunities within a few blocks of me, so there was hardly a reason to ride a bike, much less drive. In fact, I gave away my bikes to people who could use them because I hated to see them gathering dust.
A few months ago, however, I moved to Riverside, CA, to go to grad school. Riverside is quite a bicycle friendly town (by California standards). It has well marked bike lanes in most major streets and bicycle buttons on many intersections. In general, I have found that motorists here hate cyclists much less than those in Los Angeles (who deliberately tried to kill me a couple of times). Too, most of the stores were much further from my new apartment than they had been from my old one. The supermarket is about a five mile round trip. I have no problem walking five miles to buy groceries, but it gets 110ºF (43ºC) here in the summer, and it was impossible to buy frozen food without it melting before I got home. I decided it was time to buy another bike.
After a long search, I settled on the Union Flyer from Gran Royal. I have now been riding it for nearly two weeks, and feel ready to write a review.
When I chose the bike, I knew I needed something simple and basic. After commuting for years on an 18 speed road bike, I knew I didn’t want to mess around with any more derailers or skinny high-pressure tires. Also I didn’t want anything too fancy because it would be locked on campus at all hours and was likely to get stolen or vandalized. The Union Flyer seemed to fit the bill and, at $140 (on sale at Nashbar) the price was right.
The bike has classic lines, reminiscent of English Raleigh and Hercules bikes from the mid-20th century. Gran Royal calls it a “single-speed comfort bike” but most of the world would probably think of it as just an ordinary. It uses an American style one-piece bottom bracket–not surprising, since Gran Royal is owned by a BMX company. All the other components, from the 700×32 wheels to the threadless headset, are modern and metric. The only brake is a Shimano coaster hub.
- The design is simple, and should need very little maintenance beyond repacking the hubs every couple thousand miles. This is a bike that will probably last longer than I will.
- The price, as mentioned above, was quite affordable.
- The frame is heavy, but the welding is clean and the alignment is good. Steel is real!
- The bike has full fenders and a chain guard so I can wear nice pants without them getting trashed. The overall look of the bike is quite classy and gets noticed by people around the bike rack.
All in all, I am delighted.
- The paint is pretty but seems overly delicate. Already I have several small paint chips. I can see myself repainting the whole bike in a year or two, or even getting it powder coated.
- The hand grips get a little slippery when my hands are sweaty (see above about the hot summers here). I am thinking about trying a different brand.
- I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the coaster brake. I like the simplicity of it, but I am having to revise my whole riding style. For example, when stopped in traffic at an intersection it is impossible to track-stand. Also, to get going, I need to change feet. I have accidentally locked the back wheel a couple of times when I was bunny-hopping potholes and brought my feet back too far. I think that most of these problems have more to do with changing my technique than with any problem with the bike itself, however.
- The bike comes standard with a 44T chainwheel and an 18T cog. This works out to be about a 5.5 gain ratio (using Sheldon Brown’s calculator) which is probably fine for a bike path, but is a little too high a gear to climb a hill with a load of groceries. I installed a 20T cog (5.0 ratio) and realized an immediate gain in rideability (total cost less than $10, including shipping).
Changes I Would Like To See
- Rod Brakes – Which are almost impossible to find in this country, but this bike would be a perfect application. They would be as durable as the coaster, but much more effective.
- Lower Gearing – As described above. 44X18 seems perfect.
Of course the rod brakes are a fantasy and the gearing is cheap to change in the field. I am really rather happy with this bike as it is.