Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Two City Bikes: Bella Ciao Superba and the Electra Amsterdam

It's taken a bit of time, but I am finally able to sit and write out thoughts on the borrowed Electra Amsterdam "La Fonda del Sol" and the Bella Ciao "Superba."  I should first point out that it is a bit of an odd comparison to attempt to contrast these two very different bicycles. However, I also think it's valuable to have something to compare to/with, so hopefully it will help me sort out my dilemma with the Bella Ciao, and perhaps provide some insight for others as well. (I should also note that I couldn't quite figure out how to ride two bicycle simultaneously, nor could I find anyone when I had time to ride the second bike, so some of the photos included are less than glamorous. My sincere apologies).
The Electra Amsterdam is a colorful beast (I use the term "beast" with an affectionate intention) with a 3-speed Shimano Nexus internal hub. It has a rear coaster brake and a front hand brake, providing enough stopping power for city riding purposes. It is also equipped with a rear rack, bell, battery powered tail light and bottle driven head light.
While riding this bicycle, I feel happy - literally, I can't stop smiling. It is almost as though it creates a good mood, even if I'm feeling a bit grouchy. It also rides large. What I mean by this is that it feels very expanded. The rider sits back (part of Electra's "flat foot technology," no doubt) and there is a lot of room between the saddle and the handlebars. It feels big, but comfortably so. The handlebars sit wide and I'm always relaxed when riding this bicycle. The saddle is comfortable for short distances and is made of a leatherette material. For longer rides, I find the saddle uncomfortable, but for sub-6 to 8 mile rides, it works just fine.
Even the Amsterdam's saddle is fun!
As stated in a past blog post, it's difficult to ride this bike and not get the attention of those around. I have to say that it certainly catches many an eye because it isn't the typical color scheme found on most bicycles. Whether this is good or bad for the rider depends on the individual. For me, I love the opportunity to talk to people about a bicycle, but I can also see how it could get to be a bit annoying if the rider is in a hurry to get a task done and someone is trying to ask about the bicycle. Although I tend to think I am a wallflower, I doubt I would find this so attractive if I were, so I suppose it is something each person must figure out for him/herself. At minimum, the rider should be prepared for the occasional comment from a passing car or other cyclist.
The rear rack is rated to carry up to 25 pounds (a bit over 11 kg). In all reality, for many this is not a high enough rating to use this to haul groceries and other heavier items. While it is doable, I would prefer a higher rating for instances when I have more of a full load to carry. For anyone wondering about the frame, it is made of aluminum and the fork of steel. I am not normally a fan of aluminum bicycles (particularly for a city bike), but this one seems to do the job without creating hand vibrations, which is my biggest concern with aluminum.
 The Bella Ciao and Electra are just about as different as two of the same "type" of bicycles can be in many respects. On the surface, they seem to be a similar bike, but when digging in the rider can definitely see and feel the differences. The Bella Ciao feels petite and bird like when riding. The handlebars sit narrower (coming in closer toward the body) and the seating position has the rider positioned more directly over the pedals. When riding the Bella Ciao I feel proper, for lack of better phrasing at the moment. I sit up high and more vertical, versus the relaxed position of the Electra. The saddle is made of leather, is narrower (and thinner), but is much more comfortable over longer distances.
Bella Ciao saddle vs Electra Amsterdam saddle
Both of the bicycles have rear racks, however, the Bella Ciao's rack is rated to carry up to 40 lbs (18 kg), which is nice because it's a bit more weight that can be transported. Not that I ever really carry 40 pounds of "stuff" with me, but it's nice to know that the rack can handle it if need be. I don't think I'd have ever guessed by looking at the two racks side-by-side that the Bella Ciao's handmade rear rack can carry more weight than the Electra. Which just goes to show that just because something appears stronger doesn't necessarily make it so. I do prefer the length of the rear rack on the Electra because it provides just enough space to be able to scoot things back a bit so that it doesn't hit my back while riding. I think it has to do somewhat the with rounded edge on the rear of the Bella Ciao rack. Looks-wise, I would give the point to the rack on the Bella Ciao. Put plain and simply, it's just daintier and prettier to behold.
Both bicycles come with fenders and a full chain guard, however, only the Electra has a skirt/coat guard on the rear wheel. This is not a huge deal to me, but could make a difference for some. Also, adding a skirt guard to the Bella Ciao is possible, so it shouldn't be a deciding factor necessarily. The grips on these bicycles are different as well. The Bella Ciao has cork grips while the Electra has coordinating leatherette grips. Personally, I prefer the cork (both for its looks and comfort), but I think that each seem to go with their respective frames, and I don't find either offensive.
Bella Ciao cork grips vs Electra leatherette grips
The lights! Oh, the lights. This is probably one of the most difficult things for me about each of these bikes. I dislike both systems, but for very different reasons. On the Electra, the head light is powered by a bottle driven system. When the rider wants to turn on the head light, she simply flips the bottle so that it connects with the wheel, which generates the power to light up the head light. When activated, the bottle system creates a good amount of drag on this bicycle. The nice piece of this lighting system is that it's only "on" while one is riding the bicycle (thus, there is only a sensation of dragging while it is engaged), but the down side is that it's only on while one is riding the bicycle...meaning that when the rider comes to a stop at a light or stop sign (or for any other reason), the hub is no longer powered, which means that the rider is less visible because the light has turned off. In addition, the tail light is battery powered rather than connecting to the system that lights the front of the bike. Personally, I would prefer not to have to worry about carrying around extra batteries.
On the Bella Ciao, the lighting system is part of the hub and the rider simply flicks an on switch to activate the head light. In the case of the Bella Ciao, it also powers the tail light, preventing any need to replace batteries. While this system seems ideal, the hub on the Bella Ciao creates a drag (even when it isn't on), which I initially thought was only in my head. I had a reader contact me who also owns this model and expressed similar concerns. She ended up taking her bicycle to her local shop where she learned that the the hub is a lower end model and the head light is a halogen light (rather than an LED light). Between the two items, it causes a dragging sensation as well as requiring more juice to generate the power for this particular light. To summarize, even when the light isn't on, it is still creating a drag, and when it is on, it needs more power.
Both of these bicycles have rear coaster brakes. In the past, I have always had coaster brake bicycles and they never seemed to bother me. Over the last 1.5-2 years, however, I have not owned a bicycle with a coaster brake, and unfortunately is isn't something I have easily become used to again. Because I am so incredibly klutzy, and have to start with a particular foot in the "correct" position, using the coaster brakes hasn't been my favorite experience. I have found myself using only the hand brake, which in turn causes me to pedal slower if there is a good deal of traffic, or if I think I may need to stop abruptly.
There are other differences (that can make a big difference to some riders) such as the tires, the bell (the brass bell on the Electra is a replacement - it comes with a coordinating colored bell), the shifting systems (Sturmey-Archer vs Shimano) and the pedals, but really it all comes down to what works for the rider. Personally, I am conflicted about each of these bikes. I have owned an Electra Amsterdam in the past and I sold it for a reason - it just wasn't what I was looking for in a bicycle. I didn't like the saddle for slightly longer distances, and replacement saddles weren't working for me (though I have learned much about saddles since that time). I also didn't like that it was so difficult to attempt to stand up and pedal on it due to body positioning. That said, it was probably my most ridden city bicycle because it was easy to use and not horribly heavy. I do currently own the Bella Ciao and have considered selling it - but for different reasons. It rides well, is functional as a city bike, and is quite beautiful. However, I am not certain it is the right bicycle for me. There are days when I ride it and think, "How could I get rid of this?" and there are other days when I just don't feel comfortable on it and think that it could find a good home with someone who would appreciate it and ride it more regularly.
I haven't figured out the answer for myself just yet. There are certainly pros and cons to a decision to move on to another bike; however, I also know that changes could be made to the Bella Ciao to make it more appropriate for me. I could take off the coaster brake and replace it with a roller brake, I could remove the dynamo hub and opt for a higher end model or remove the system all together and use battery operated lights, but in the end I question the additional costs versus either keeping the bike as is or selling it to someone who is looking for this very type of set up. With any decision, I have concerns and wonder whether the pocket book can handle any choice I make. In time, I am certain the right decision will make itself known, and in the mean time, I have the great fortune of riding two very interesting city bikes a bit longer.

3 comments:

  1. Oh man, I hope that if/when you decide to sell the Bella Ciao, I suddenly and serendipitously come upon $1000+. I loved the Bella Ciao when I tried it out and it absolutely made it onto my Ideal Bike List.

    I, too, noticed the drag. Replacing it with a bottle dynamo might be an option, as well as installing a higher-end model.

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  2. :O) Lauren, you will definitely read about it here if it does end up in the sell category. I was hoping to ride it today, but we woke up to about a foot of snow on the ground, so it may have to wait. I'm not entirely sure what to do about it - and don't know if I want to invest more into the bike or sell it to someone who will enjoy it as-is (or who can put the money into it). Time will definitely tell.

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  3. If you do intend to sell I will be interested in purchasing.

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