24 February 2008

Bikes We Like: Retrovelo Balloon Racer

Technically speaking this should be the inaugural post in an newly started "Bikes That Make Us Giggle and Blush Like Schoolboys in Love" category.

We had heard of the Balloon Bikes from Retrovelo before but hadn't really explored the rumours. Until recently. Oh my.

It's one thing to fall head over heels for a bike but it's quite another to discover an urge to party with the people behind the product. Can't say we've experienced THAT sensation before.

It's the bikes, sure, but it's their whole approach to marketing their product. The whole 'joie de vivre' feeling of their website and catalogue. Playful, tongue-in-cheek, retro kitsch. These are clearly people who love making their bikes and aren't afraid to have a laugh [and buy us beer].

The good people at German bikemaker Retrovelo are quite clear about what they do and why they do it. They adhere to the 'form follows function' mantra of Northern European design while maintaining the emotional attachment to retro style. Aesthetic expression, they say, creates things of special quality and individual beauty. Not content to merely imitate historical forms, they choose to push the form to modern limits.

On their website they state that their style is inspired by the playful designs of the 50's and the irresistibly rebellious designs of the 60's and 70's. A certain naïve design period which mirrored society's dreamy visions of the future. As they say themselves, 'now, more than ever, humans want to see memories, desires and dreams fulfilled'. And they produce simple bikes that wave happily back in time to the period between the 1930's and 1950's.

While the balloon tyre is not a new invention - it was developed back in the 1920's - Retrovelo's frames beg for fat tyres and it is a match made in heaven. Their bikes look... well, bouncy. Playful. Cheeky. A refreshing and much-needed antidote to the burgeoning luxury bike market. We believe that more Retrovelos on the bike lanes of Copenhagen would create a party mood. A temptation to wink and flirt at the cyclist next to you at the light.

Their models are all given simple names like Fritz, Paul, Klaus, Max, Klara, Pauli, Maxi - which is so refreshing. The colours are somehow unique and deliciously cool.

All said, Retrovelo is a bike we like. Often imitated, rarely matched.

Retrovelo's website
[in German, but the catalogue has an English version.]
Retrovelo is available at Velorution in London and Clevercycles in Portland, USA.

Here's an interview with the two chaps behind Retrovelo, from Dirtmag . Interviewed at Interbike '07. How ironic is that... a retrodesign bike for urban commuting interviewed by a mountain bike magazine...:-)


eradler said...

Such bikes may be looking good but it may be cumbersome to ride them. If you really want to have a mate for every day have a look at the energy losses and check out:
- low profile high pressure tires having low rolling resistance
- possibility to lean forward reducing air drag
- lightweight if you intend to take it into your flat
- non corroding parts e.g. no low grade steel

Zakkaliciousness said...

thanks for the input. although I ride a Velorbis Scrap Deluxe everyday, with the fat frank tyres and 'sit up and beg' posture and i can't imagine going back to a 'lean over and wince' bike... :-)

Aaron said...

Have you ridden one? In reality the Fat Frank ballon tires have a lower rolling resistance than many narrower high pressure tires, ditto the Schwalbe Big Apple tires that are used on folders. This is not a bike you need to worry about aerodynamics on. It is for fun, riding to the local pub, or park. Not to be used in an attempt to win the TDF, tho I suspect with enough doping even that might be possible ;-)


dr2chase said...


I'll bet you never measured the difference. When I replaced 120psi tires (700cx28 -- as narrow as I dare on the rotten roads near Boston, and I still dented a hand-built rim) with Big Apples, my commute time decreased, and the computer-reported speed increased. I was puzzled too, it did not agree with conventional wisdom.

I later measured the difference swapping out front tires and doing a rolling test down a gentle slope into a flat, and the fat tires always took me further. See for yourself, I even filmed it.

I am sure, if I went to thin enough, high enough pressure tires, then they would have lower resistance, but such tires cannot cope with a New England commute. The big tires are fantastic; they don't even fit in cracks in the road or sewer grates, they ride over sand, not into it, they smooth out all sorts of bumps.

And sit up and beg would be fun (I have an old, old Raleigh, and ride it too) but I've got a 10-mile commute, and I raced as a kid. Dropped bars (but not as bent over as seems fashionable now) work great for me (the bike in the video has moustache bars, but now they are Nitto Randonneur bars).

eradler said...

I have to correct some misunderstanding:
The tyre should not be thin but the height should be low acc. rolling resistance theory unless it has an elliptic profile...
What about the other points - I bet that its possible to build a stylish cruiser which is lightweight, resisting corrosion and allows a second riding position ;-)

Öine Patrull said...

It is easy to make comfortable road bike from your cruiser. All you have to do is put two bar-ends to the middle of cruiser`s handlebar. So you can lean forward when riding on the road.

Fritz said...

The German guys who make Retro Velo bikes made quite an impression at Interbike last year. They told me they were inspired by American design while integrating European ideas into it also, which I thought was interesting. I mentioned Retrovelo and posted photos over at CommuteByBike a while back; I'm impressed with their work. I think Clever Cycles in Portland, OR carries Retrovelo now.

Anonymous said...

I just wonder why there are old fashioned front lights but the rear lights are always of some modern style. You can find lots of retro-style bike nowadays but they always carry modern plastic lights on the rear fenders. Ok, one exception: the Swedish Kronan has a nice vintage-style rear light, but AFAIK it´s battery powered. :-(

Öine Patrull said...

Anonymous, maybe it`s because rear lights are more important for biker`s safety and modern rear lights have better lightpower than well-designed retro lights.

Zakkaliciousness said...

for the record, a cruiser IS a road bike if you ride on the... get this... road. I commute all over town on my balloon bike and love it.

yes, fritz, these chaps seem quite cool.

very, very intersting comment about rear lights... where are the modern version of the retro lights?! I can't recall seeing any. well spotted.

Freewheel said...

Beautiful bike - yet functional as well. Nice find!

Nickie, Anthony, Samuel, and Anders said...

Actually if you look real close at the light its a modern B&M dynolight in a retro housing. Once again accomplishing the form AND the function