Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Another "Ultimate Commuter"

I'm always reading and hearing about bikes that tech junkies have christened "the Ultimate Commuter" -- the very claim itself inevitably makes me skeptical. Combining lots high tech computing power and smartphone connectivity into a flashy package of aluminum and carbon fiber, the bikes typically seem to me more like accessories for a certain kind of high-end "lifestyle" than real commuting tools.

The latest "Ultimate Commuter" comes from Volata Cycles of San Francisco. Like previous "Ultimate Commuters" their bike is billed as the "first of its kind," and is equipped with an app-based computer embedded "seamlessly" into its handlebar stem for performance data, weather forecasts, turn-by-turn navigation, heart rate monitoring, and smartphone connectivity. The bike also has a built-in horn, built-in lights, and a GPS-based anti-theft tracking system. It's all battery powered, but there is a front hub dynamo to keep the bike's internal batteries charged -- so users have "the luxury of never worrying about recharging."

Aluminum frame, carbon fork, belt drive, internal hub
gearing, and disc brakes - and lots of electronic geegaws.
"Luxury" is a good word in this case, since the Volata has a planned retail price of $3,499, which includes a $299 deposit/reservation fee, with the remainder due when the bikes are delivered, hopefully beginning in July 2017.

From the press release:

"The bicycle is the most efficient means of human transport ever invented . . . The problem is, the bicycle industry didn't evolve on the tech side, and did not improve the bicycle with native digital features whose goal is improving the riding experience and safety . . . As cars have evolved, also bikes need to evolve."

I'll say it again - bikes aren't cars. In many ways they're better. In comparing bikes to cars, a person might as well argue "Bikes are OK, but they'll never really improve until they weigh about 3,000 lbs and burn gasoline."

Regular readers already know how I feel about most claims that digital features "improve the riding experience." I'll admit that having built-in lights could be a nice thing, particularly if the lights are of high quality. However, if they are just of the variety that help the rider to be seen, but don't provide enough light to ride by on dark, unlit roads, then they don't exactly eliminate the need to have more "add-on" lights attached to the bike. In this particular case, the Volata's built-in taillight (consisting of 6 LEDs) is probably sufficient for most people. The unique twin headlights which are built into the fork are listed at 150 lumens. Having not ridden the bike, I couldn't say if they are sufficient for lighting the road ahead - but with headlights, it's often not just a question of light power, but also the quality and focus of the beam provided. Let's just say, I wouldn't be shocked if a lot of users found the need to mount some extra lighting for serious night-time or pre-dawn riding.

The Volata has an aluminum frame with a carbon fiber fork, belt drive, Shimano Alfine Di2 electronic internal-hub gearing, and disc brakes. Styling-wise, it has that modern look with its steeply sloping top tube, with a stem that seems to blend right into the unusually notched head-tube/top-tube junction. The bike is offered in four frame sizes, S, M, L, XL.

Among the stylistic touches that I find questionable would be this head-tube/top-tube/stem junction. The angle of the stem is designed to match the angle of the top tube, and the stem nestles into an unusual notch (stress riser?), much the same way I've seen on a few hyper-expensive carbon fiber race bikes. Volata claims that the proprietary stem with its integrated computer screen is available in two lengths and two angles. Hopefully one of them lets users find the right position. But if someone chooses a different angle, I don't know how that meshes with the whole design theme. On the whole, the design puts a gimmicky aesthetic ahead of function and fit -- rarely a good trade-off in my opinion.
I continue to hear mostly good things about Gates belt drive, and it seems a natural pairing with an internal-gear hub. However, they do seem to be particularly sensitive to small changes in belt tension and "chain line" (or more appropriately, "belt alignment") that don't even present themselves as issues on a typical chain-drive setup ("fixies" notwithstanding). I'm also skeptical of anything claimed to be "zero maintenance."
If I were to consider what makes a bike a good commuter (much less the Ultimate Commuter), I think I'd put load carrying and easy fender-mounting high on the list of necessities. The Volata currently has neither, though the website claims that some integrated "bike extensions" (they explicitly don't like the word "accessories") are in the works. Based on some sketches on the site, these extensions may include some type of seatpost-mounted "pod" and a "fender" that BSNYC would describe as a "filth prophylactic" - which is a far cry from full-coverage fenders.

Before I move on, let's take a look back at some previous "Ultimate Commuters" that I've mentioned here on the Retrogrouch Blog:

The Vanhawks Valour featured lots of smartphone connectivity - but no accommodation for racks or fenders. No brakes either.
The Vanmoof S-series had fenders, brakes, and built-in lights. BBC Autos called it one of the "10 most beautiful bicycles." Errr . . . ahh . . . um . . . ?
The B'Twin had a super-racy aero position, integrated lights, and could carry a Macbook laptop, but not much else. No room for fenders, either. To be fair to the Volata, the B'Twin is really just a concept - not likely to see production within the next year.

Obviously I'm skeptical, and maybe even a bit cynical. But it seems to me that the ultimate commuter shouldn't cost thousands of dollars, or have anything on it that would make a person weep uncontrollably if it were stolen by someone with a set of allen keys and a cable cutter. Unless a person can count on having a safe, secure place indoors to keep their bike, that often means going the low profile route, which is why a lot of hard-core commuters go with some kind of "beater" bike for commuting. Keep it simple. Keep it cheap. Ugly is OK since it provides a certain element of stealth. Splurge on good tires. Keep the cables, chain and sprockets clean and lubed. Slap some fenders and a rack on there so you can stay reasonably clean and carry stuff easily. For urban commuters, this can all be had for a few hundred bucks.

I saw this on the Chicago Magazine site: Anatomy of a $162 Beater Bike. 
I'm lucky for my own commuting that I can take my bike indoors with me, and keep it right in my classroom - nice and safe. So that, plus the fact that I'm a sucker for vintage classic bikes, and a bit of a snob, my main commuting bike cost a lot more than a person needs to spend to get a perfectly suitable bike - but still only about 1/3 the cost of something like the Volata. If I had to leave it outdoors, and if I were concerned about security, I'd have been able to easily get something that functions just as well for a lot less.

What really is the Ultimate Commuter? The bike that gets a person to and from work swiftly, cheaply, and reliably. Bikes with built-in digital gimmicks and a $3000+ price tag are for meeting people at coffee shops - not for serious commuters.


  1. I still own and ride a 1993 X0-1 ...probably one of the best "commute bikes" ever...I believe you wrote a column about this. 23 years old and still going strong, although I have replaced a number of things over the years

  2. Funny that you posted this today, as I was writing about the Bitlock: another piece of electronic gadgetry that no cyclist actually needs.

  3. The Ultimate Commuter has two tyres that hold air, good brakes, doesn't squeak rattle or rub, and can hold a straight line.

  4. I've got an "ultimate Commuter", but its much more retro + modern. Waterford sport touring with electronic alfine 11 drivetrain (chain not belt), fenders and room for wide tires, dynamo lighting, and all the luggage attachments one could want. Course its also my touring bike, brevet bike, pick the kid up from daycare with the trailer bike. As luck would have it I can park my bike in my classroom as well, as I wouldn't lock it up overnight downtown 'cause I couldn't afford to replace it.
    btw... I've been lurking here for a long time, first post. One of my favorite blogs, thanks for keeping it up!!

    1. I've been commuting a lot on my own custom a lot lately, too: a Davidson touring bike. It's neither modern nor high-tech, but its low-trail geometry with a ton of wheelbase has given it the handling I've enjoyed more than any other bike I've ever had. I can load it up with tons of groceries, but it's also fun to ride unloaded.

  5. Yikes, that thing is a market hyped, bullshit pitch laced disgrace.

    The B'Twin? Sorry, but when did TT/Tri bikes become commuters????

    And don't even get me started on belt drive, I tried it, tried it really hard, every failure it had, was blamed on me, or my equipment.

    Then they came out with a "fix" for the problems I was having that they said were all my fault.

    I'll never recommend, or suggest that company to anyone.

  6. My Commuter is a Leuleu randonneur .650b. frenders. Lights. Two bags on the rear rack, a small rack at the front.

    Heavy, but reliable and weatherproof. I only need to upgrade the steel rims and the cottered crank and i am golden.

    I guess the guys at Volata don't commute much on a bike if they think that their bike is good for the job...

  7. My guess is that a lot of the "designers" of these bikes have a commute that consists of slinging their messenger bags over their shoulder and riding their fixies down to the nearest coffee shop.


  8. "The Vanhawks Valour featured lots of smartphone connectivity - but no accommodation for racks or fenders. No brakes either."
    Their website shows a bike with fenders and brakes.

    1. They must have added that since I first wrote about the bike. When I first saw it on their site, I could only see a brakeless fixie with no eyelets or anything for fenders. That must have been an early version of the bike.

  9. I have the ultimate commuter. Its a 99 Bianchi volpe with Schmidt generator hub and light, perpendicular eyelets added to the seatstay and chainstay bridges to allow good fender mounting, and a revised steel fork with more offset to allow a front load with good handling. Originally bought it used for 400 bucks, 16 years ago. The only way to improve it would be with a full custom bike. Given that almost all of my rides involve some combination of darkness, wetness, or the need to carry something- almost all of my miles go on this bike, even the non-commute miles.
    One question about the Gates drive: what happens when the belt is damaged or worn out? Is the frame useless too? I have ridden them and they are super light and seem to work well, otherwise.

    1. I've always liked the Volpe -- especially the early versions which came with a lugged frame. A good all-rounder, and similar in some ways to the beloved Bridgestone XO-1.

      About the belt drive - I assume you are referring to the fact that the belt can't be taken apart like a chain. With belt-drive bikes, they typically have some kind of provision for separating the rear triangle so a belt can be installed/removed. Usually, there will be some bolts at the rear dropout that would allow either the seat-stay or chain-stay to disconnect.

  10. Good post. Around here (the Pacific Northwest) no bike without good fenders can even hope to call itself a commuter. Mine is an old Bianchi (mid- or late-80s I think, but no model name on it) road bike that cost me $150 20 years ago, upgraded to a really huge rear cluster and triple crank with old Deore XT derailleurs for the steep hills that I ride, and equipped with much-repaired old fenders, an old-school Blackburn rack and very new school 400-lumen LED lights. Love the damn thing...

  11. I'd say for me the ultimate commuter bike would be a velomobile with electric assist. My commute is 35km in one direction and I can store it there.

  12. 'Steal this bike' - perfect commuter is my 'Rainy Day-Keep Portland Weird' 1970s gas pipe but nicely lugged Montgomery Ward 10 speed. Fenders with plastic milk jug sourced mud flaps. Very comfortable with basement sourced 1980s Avocet touring saddle and SR pedals with Christophe cages. Bullet proof Kenda Kevlar 26" tires (a fraction of the cost of Conti Gatorskins) No one would look twice at what has been an $80 investment to date. I die a little every time I run into a twenty-something someone at a LBS who just had their $1000+ bike stolen . I don't even carry locks on my $1000+ bikes to avoid the temptation to leave them unattended for even a few minutes.