I arrived for my first visit to San Francisco with the idea of getting myself a bike to explore the city. Voilà — one chat with the product reviews editor later, and my butt’s planted on the mighty comfy Urbana.
I live in Shanghai, where cycling is a way of life, and I’m Italian, so cycling is in my blood. My background is mostly in mountain biking, so I’m used to fat tires and fat frames. But not, I’ll admit, on a commuter bike.
The Urbana is as beefy and sturdy as a football player. It’s got a step-through frame and lacks a horizontal top tube, à la “a girl’s bike” — friendlier to the women of yesteryear who rode bikes in their long and ample skirts. The lack of rigidity that comes with this age-old design is mitigated here. The big tubes and quality welds keep the ride steady and comfortable. At the bottom of the “U” shape are two reinforcement plates. They’re welded to the sides of the tubes where they act to reduce stress on the frame and stiffen things up around the bottom bracket.
The Urbana is spec’d for year-round versatility: disc brakes, fender eyelets, custom-made fat tires, a rear rack for panniers or cargo baskets, and a low-maintenance and clean Gates belt drive attached to a Shimano Nexus 8-speed internally geared hub. Even with all the hardware, it doesn’t lose that je ne sais quoi, that (dare I say European?) grace that makes it look OK even when the rider is a gentle, middle-aged worker bee.
To put it another way, even with the beefiness, the Urbana is not the most masculine bike around. But even if the design doesn’t scream “kick ass,” the ride quality is still excellent. The low-pressure, 2.6-inch semi-slick Sidewalk “Nid de poule” tires digest knee-deep potholes, torn-up bike lanes, construction zones and curbs without worry. They also have some extra reinforcement, with an anti-flat layer under the tread and two layers of rubber around the sidewalls. These are custom tires, and every Urbana ships with them.
Something about the bike compels people to ask, “And how much would this cost?” The usual answer, upon hearing that it sports a hefty $1,800 price tag, is: “Woah! That thing?” We’re conditioned to think of fancy racing bikes costing that much, but not commuters. Still, it’s unfair to dismiss the Urbana on pricing. It’s not a toy; it’s a quality ride, and quality isn’t cheap.
As the doorman in my building said: “It doesn’t look fast.” And it doesn’t, I’ll give him that. Much like a longboard or a low rider, it’s built for comfort, cruising and coasting, not for moving you between here and there as fast as possible.
The vertical riding position (especially for yours truly, whose small frame had me positioning the seat post only a tiny bit out of the seat tube) doesn’t help in the speed department. You catch wind like a spinnaker. But the weight of the frame and the mass of the wheels affords one very pleasant consequence: lots of momentum.
Another feature that’s positively surprising for this bike is the silence of its ride. Nothing rattles or crunches. The addition of the carbon belt drive in lieu of a chain contributes to the machine’s stealthiness. Our tester didn’t have the newer Gates CenterTrack system, but Urbana offers that as an option.
Something to note about the drivetrain: The rear dropout system is removable and different modules can be swapped in, so you can fit it with a single-speed freewheel, a cassette and derailleur, other internal gear hubs (even a NuVinci), or other belt drives without altering the frame. If your dropout of choice gets chewed up, you can plop in a new one without altering the frame.
I rode the bike to work every day for about two and a half weeks, and I was very pleased with the sturdiness and comfort. But I had to pull it up a short flight of stairs every day, and given the bulk and weight, that was something I definitely didn’t look forward to.
Sure, it took a bit of swearing to get the Urbana moving when the light turned green at intersections, but once I reached cruising speed, “fuel consumption” felt comparatively lessened. The disc brakes were super-responsive, and the 8-speed hub made the infamously hilly San Francisco if not pleasant, at least negotiable.
According to the company’s website, to build an Urbana, you “take a little bit of Amsterdam and add some North Shore.” That’s pretty accurate. It’s a great utility bike and it’s laid back. But considering the look of the thing, I’d add a pinch of “Los Angeles soccer mom” to the mix.
WIRED Comfortable, sturdy ride. Commuter-friendly trim. There’s one frame size, but with enough adjustability to fit most riders. RNR rack holds 120 pounds and handles a variety of bags. Choose one of 12 colors, from stately black to bright orange and acid green.
TIRED Heavy (just under 40 pounds). Pricey ($1,800 as tested). Goofy looking. Extra-wide, 2.6-inch tires offer too much rolling resistance and don’t always fit into bike racks. No built-in lights; you have to provide your own.