In the 1970s, 10-speeds were de rigeur. Two decades later, mountain bikes were on every biker's wish list, and most recently, “city bikes,” single speeds and “fixies” are as equally common. Somewhere, perhaps amid piles of half-constructed bikes and welding machinery, the barons of the bike industry are surely wondering to themselves: What will the next sales king look like?
Well, one dark horse candidate is gaining a small, growing and intensely loyal constituency. Some owners call it a “tank,” but for the more refined it’s commonly referred to as a 3-speed. The bike itself has been a common enough sight for over a century—big burly fenders with built-in reflectors and lights, chain guards, and internally-geared hubs, all on a super solid and heavy steel frame. All in all they generally weigh 10 to 25 pounds more than a common road bike.
These indestructible and resolutely utilitarian bikes hit their peak of popularity between the 1930s and 1960s, when British makers like Raleigh and Phillips were exporting tens of thousands of them to the United States. Riding them won’t mess up a suit, dress or other formal wear, and, with added bike baskets, they easily haul several stones weight of shopping or other cargo.
But they’re more than just a bike, say their devotees. Three-speeds are a frame of mind, and they will be out in force in Monday's annual Tweed Ride where old-style bicycles and tweed-clad riders rule.
“It’s less looking back on the history as a historian would, it’s more re-creating our notion of history,” said Brian Postlewaite, a Somerville Bike Committee member, writer of the Bummels and Jaunts bike-touring blog, and proud owner of a 1960s-era Raleigh 3-speed. “The 3-speed to me is more the notion of not being in too much of a hurry and wanting to be social on a daily scale, rather than being a recreational thing. We’re drawing from history to create a present that we prefer.”
In fact, not all bikes in the class of what is alternatively called the “slow bike movement” actually have 3-speeds on them. Some have 5 or 8 speeds in their old-school hubs, some are geared with modern deraillieurs like 10 speeds, and some have no gears at all.
Other slow bikes are simply road bikes fitted out with all the trimmings and accoutrement of their older brethren. A growing list of websites are beginning to cater to the owners of these refurbished dinosaurs, selling brand new leather saddle bags, wicker baskets, and new headlights that look very old.
And, by the same token, not all of these bikes are over the age of 50, though buying a used one is by far the cheapest option. Small bike makers and few of the giant manufacturers across the country are beginning to come out with internally-geared hubs on new bikes that mimic the old looks. One example is Public—an independent bike brand featured at the new Ride Studio Café in Lexington. There are 1-, 3-, and 8-speed commuter bikes available under the Public brand that sport a colorful retro look. Even Schwinn got into the 3-Speed act recently—but with a male-female bike pairing bearing the unfortunate model names “Coffee” and “Cream” and a modern two-tone color scheme, they generally make a true slow-bike enthusiast scoff with derision.
Fashion is a significant part of the engine driving the slow bike philosophy, and many of the converted first picked up the idea online, at bike-fashion blogs like Copenhagen Cycle Chic, Chic Cyclists, and LovelyBike.blogspot.com. “Velouria”—a nom de plume for the Somerville-based writer of the latter—started LovelyBike as a personal search for a bike that would allow her look good in the saddle.
“I didn’t think they existed anymore,” she said. “Something that would fit your own style. I began to research what sort of bikes I could get that would still allow me to dress my way.”
Velouria eventually found her ride—and liked it so much entered into the tight-knit culture of the slow riders. She and Anton Tutter of Somerville co-founded the Boston Retro Wheelmen group, which now meets monthly to discuss their bikes, accessories and fashion finery, helping to build an ever larger community.
“Boston is really special in terms of how many 3-speed bikes we have here,” she says. “You don’t see this size of community in most other cities.”
One of the more fascinating aspects of the 3-speed trend is that even though women comprise only 27 percent of all cyclists riding to work in Boston, women are buying more 3-speeds than men. And the traditional British 3-speed, with its heavy weight and practical features—is very similar to the traditional Dutch bike. In the Netherlands, bikes are ubiquitous and women make up a full 50 percent of the bike commuting population.
“I’d say it’s 60 percent women buying them,” said Vin Vullo, the proprietor of OldRoads.com, an all-vintage bike store that does a brisk business in the basement of the Cambridge Antique Market near Lechmere MBTA station. His showroom includes a handsome fleet of 3-speeds. “They want a bike that has an upright riding position. They want a rack or a basket. They’re very practical.”
“They’re less athletic looking I guess, so you don’t feel that you have to wear the spandex,” said Megan Ramey of Cambridge.
Ramey, a member of the Boston 3-Speed Club, bought a 1960s Phillips 3-speed after spotting similar models on the Copenhagen Cycle Chic blog. Ramey and yet another slow biker—Dan Pugatch of Cambridge—organize the ultimate social event for slow bikes—the Tweed Ride.
Tweed Rides are where the slow rubber hits the slow road, so to speak. Riders generally “tweed it up” by donning handlebar moustaches, tweed caps and jackets, and curly tobacco pipes for a slow cruise through Boston and Cambridge.
“The one coming up won’t be as tweedy as we were expecting because of the weather,” said Ramey. “I expect to see a lot of tweed modified outfits. We joked about maybe making it a Linen Ride.”
For those interested, the Tweed Ride takes off at noon Monday from Christian A. Herter Park in Allston. A 3-Speed is not required, anyone can join in as long as they are running on pedal power and have at least attempted to return to the fashions of that brief time when the bicycle was king and the car was a contraption heard of but rarely seen.
Pete Stidman lives in Boston and is a co-founder of the Boston Cyclists’ Union, a group focused on making everyday cycling safer for everyone.