01 May, 2014

The Elegant Bicycle

“Fashion changes, but style endures.” 
― 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.

Level Racks

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.

Matching Colors

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.

No Contraptions

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.


Christopher said...

Not all of my bikes have fenders or racks, but your description would apply to them all equally. Guess we are in agreement.

Janson said...

The central triangle of a road bike is sacrosanct to me. A few things damage it's visual power: compact geometry (the level top tube anchors the entire bike visually), u-lock mounts, mini frame pumps, and most bottle cages and bottles. Because I don't need it, I don't have a derailleur up front on either of my daily riders, and it makes the triangle stand out even more. A seat that's too low distracts from the triangle too.

Some exceptions to the rule of not violating the triangle: a frame pump under the top tube reinforces the horizontal line. I've also sewed a carry strap into the corner of the top and seat tube and, oddly, it looked great (and was essential for getting to my fourth floor walk-up).

Finally, there's a benefit to a bike that is set up to look right - it's easier to see when something is wrong. A boat that's yar doesn't just have good structural lines, the rigging and other bits fit a pattern that lets you see, at a glance, that everything is where it should be. I think the same is true for a bike.

crmodgeon said...

Your examples lean heavily on setup more than aesthetics, which suggests that you equate elegant with harmonious and that you've set up a lot of bikes. You also are of the less-is-more school. Some might argue that a well-used bike in the third world with inventive repairs and creative problem-solving has a certain elegance in an engineering or functional sense. Semantic point. Bottom line, bikes are hard to make ugly, but people manage!

Wyn said...

The first time I got cork tape I bought a splotchy blue/black pattern to go with an 80s midnight-blue road bike. I did not like it. When the tape had gotten beat up enough to replace, I used black tape, and suddenly my bike looked so much classier despite dirt, high handlebars, and a dinged-up rack and fenders.

In the future: Colourful tape? Maybe, if the colour is carefully considered and pairs with an existing accent or matches/echoes the main paint. Black, grey, brown, or cognac tape as appropriate? Yes, especially if in any doubt about a colourful colour. Colour or pattern for its own sake that doesn't jive with the rest of the bike? Not again, thank you.

Anonymous said...

The bikes you see at bike shops these days are ugly, in my opinion. I don't care if they weigh 15lbs. Then again, I'm too heavy for that to make a difference.

The grey, smoke or black component thing was cool for a little while, but I think bikes should be shiny and pretty.

P Finn said...

Favorite "invisible glue"?

crmodgeon said...

@Janson, is there a bike equivalent for "yar"? There should be!

VeloOrange said...

P Finn, I use whatever glue I have around. Epoxy or Aquaseal are ideal and I usually keep both on hand for various outdoor gear repairs. But super-glue or waterproof carpenter's glue will work. I use a bit of masking tape to hold down the end of the bar tape until the glue sets.

Anonymous said...

One point with which I would quibble is handlebar wrap finishing. Even lowly electrical tape can look classy and elegant. On my wife's bike, she put white grips on the end of a bar comparable to the postino bend. To add hand positions, I wrapped the bends between the stem & brakes with pink tape. To finish the ends I used thin strips of red & white electrical tape. It's subtle but a great finishing detail; not unlike lug outlines.

Anonymous said...

Agreed with all points for the most part, but I see nothing wrong with some twine or tape finishing touches (although I've admittedly begun the habit of starting bar wraps inside out and using the bartape to secure itself like you once posted about.) I then use my collection of wine/beer/champagne corks to plug the barends! I've also rebuilt an old MTB bar set-up recently using natural cork grips and needed to slide the trigger shifters and brake levers inboard a little to get them properly aligned to my liking. I then wrapped twine in a couple layers to fill the half-inch wide gaps between grip&lever clamp until the thickness leveled off with the outside diameter of the cork grip, essentially making a longer grip area, and it all goes together rather nicely IMHO

Wes Ewell said...

I find the most elegant bikes to be classic steel frames with a minimum of attachments, although all my bikes have fenders, racks, and bottle cages. And, as much as I like the design and finish of most VO components, those porteur chain cases are anything but elegant.

Joe said...

Twine, properly done with no ends showing then shellacked along with cotton bar tape, to me, look very classy and add to the aesthetics. Also shows someone took the time and effort to learn how to twine the ends of a taping. Anyone can slap glue on.

MT cyclist said...

I'm in the process of building up a Raleigh Competition GS frame that I got for a bargain price. Initially I wanted to powder coat it, but lately, I've become attached to the bike's weathered patina. So far the best upgrade has been the Grand Cru Rinko Headset. It's amazingly smooth. I'm leaning toward a Brooks saddle, so another VO long setback seatpost will be in my future.

Jake Dean said...

I know you guys are really pushing that chain case, but it's really kind of hideous. I'd normally keep things like this to myself, but the topic is "The Elegant Bicycle" and that monstrosity is anything but.

Brian Sims said...

Great post! I would love to see a post on your process for wrapping bars, especially on your finishing technique with glue.

JP said...

Surprised by the negative thoughts on the chain case. That seems like one of the most practical add-ons for a city bike out there. I'm not sure why we've embraced the exposed chain as the norm.

The dislike of the exposed chain, even if it rarely caused problems, was my big impetus to go to a belt drive.

I would like to see the porteur chain case be adapted slightly, if possible, to work even better with derailer bikes, so that the the chain did not at all dip below the bottom edge of the case. That would be pretty nice.

Functionality is elegant, too, and covering the chain is super functional, particularly for those of us who ride in cities and eschew racing clothing.

Peatbog said...

I like frames that don't have the manufacturer's name on it in 27 different places. I have a several year's old Jamis Coda that has more Jamis decals on it than it has paint.

Steven Butcher said...

I tend towards the idea that "beauty is as beauty does" or "did" as in patina. Enjoyed the discussion.