― Coco Chanel
I've been thinking about bikes that I find stylish and elegant. There are a few things that, for me, make a bike look special. These are all subjective, and you'll probably disagree with some. There are those who will say that function trumps style and we shouldn't be distracted by appearances. I'd disagree; having a pretty bike makes me feel better. I'll find myself glancing back and smiling when it's put away for the night. It's a little thing, but it makes life more enjoyable. So onward to my list. You can take me to task, or make your own additions, in the comment section.
I like bikes that look like they've covered some miles. There is nothing wrong with a new bike, but I find a bike grows more attractive with use. It's interesting that in the classic car world there has recently been a strong movement toward showing cars that have never been restored. Preservation over restoration is simply more authentic. The Japanese idea of wabi-sabi shows us the beauty in worn and imperfect objects; it applies to bikes.
An elegant bike must look and be set-up with proper proportions. It should fit the rider. That means a fistful of seat post showing, or maybe a bit more on a race bike. The handlebars should be somewhere near saddle height. The saddle should not be pushed all the way back or all the way forward. The stem should be of medium length, not unusually short or long. Of course there may be good reason for someone, with a bad back for example, to have the bars up high, but it still detracts from the look of the bike.
My taste is for well made simple frames. It goes without saying that I prefer steel. Lugs, TIG welding and fillet brazing are all equally good if well done. But I'm not a fan of overly ornate lugs or cutesy braze-ons. Single color paint jobs seem more elegant to me, though restrained two color paint can be okay on certain frames. Lug lining or box lining can also be cool if not overdone. Likewise logos are an accepted part of bike aesthetics, thought they should also be restrained.
Racks should be level, not tilted forward or aft. This shows care in installation, and just plain looks right. The one exception might be porteur racks. Some feel that porteur racks are best tilted back a bit to keep things from slipping forward on braking; so I'll let that slide.
Even Fender Lines
The gap between the tire and fender should be consistent along it's entire length. And it should be the same on the front and back wheels. Nice even fender lines are one sign that a bike was designed, built, and assembled with care. A well designed frame will have the distance between the brake bridge and the tire be equal to the distance between the fork crown and the tire. The frame ideally will have fender-mounting bosses under the fork crown and seat stay bridge, though a good fender line can often be achieved without them. Use spacers such as leather washers to even out the fender line.
Properly Wrapped Handlebars
Again, seeing that care was taken when building up the frame always makes a bike more elegant. If using tape the wrap should be very even with no gaps. Shellaced cotton tape is always worth extra style points. Sewn on leather is very cool and shows real devotion. But whatever is used should be installed with care. It's also nice to see bar wrap finished without electrical tape or twine. A bit of invisible glue is my preference.
Saddle and bar tape and toe clip straps don't necessarily need to match exactly, though it is nice if they do. What bugs me is completely incongruous colors and textures, like red, white, and blue splash bar tape on a classic randonneur.
Bikes have been refined for over 150 years and most of the really weird components have been tried and rejected. I like to see bikes built up with appropriate and reliable components using tested technology. Index shifting, disc brakes, suspension forks, and even these newfangled crazy handlebars, have their place. But I can't see suspension forks on city bikes, for example. Nor do adjustable stems, bizarre saddle designs, or multiple mirrors belong on elegant bikes.
So there you have it, a few things that I think make the elegant bicycle. The comments are open.
BTW, the top drawing is by Ben Lively and can be found here should you want a copy.