As a writer specializing in green transportation topics I try to keep up with all aspects of the booming local bike scene. But now and then I get a reminder that there are so many different facets to Chicago biking nowadays that it’s practically impossible to keep track of them all.
Case in point was the Chicago launch party for Handsome Cycles that Steven and I attended last week at the Chrome messenger bag store in Wicker Park. I was surprised to learn that the shop has been hosting these parties on the third Thursday of every month for some time now. With multiple kegs of complimentary Goose Island 312 beer on tap, it was a very lively shindig.
I first heard about Minneapolis-based Handsome Cycles while working at Boulevard Bikes. So far Boulevard and Rapid Transit Cycle Shop are the only Handsome dealers in town. Leafing through the Handsome catalog I was impressed by the classy, old-fashioned styling of the bikes and the great photography and retro outfits in the 1950s-themed booklet.
Image courtesy of Handsome Cycles
When the frames arrived at our store, I appreciated all their useful features for commuting and touring, similar to bikes by Surly, another company out of the Twin Cities. These durable steel frames, with posts for cantilever brakes, eyelets and braze-ons for racks and fenders, and clearance for wide tires, can be built into a variety of practical bikes.
There’s the versatile Handsome Devil model, which could be set up as a cruiser, cyclocross, road racing or touring bike, comparable to the Surly Crosscheck. The Speedy is similar to the Devil with stars-and-stripes graphics. And the She Devil is a mixte with a dress-friendly, step-through frame, great for commuting and errands. The Speedy and Devil are also available as complete builds.
The Handsome Devil
I’m excited that Handsome has paid tribute to Bridgestone’s legendary XO-1 model, a beautiful orange commuter bike with 26” (mountain bike size) wheels and moustache bars, designed in the early 1990s by Grant Petersen, who now heads Rivendell Bicycle Works.
The Bridgestone XO-1 – photo by Russteaches
Handsome’s XOXO model includes most of the features of the hard-to-find XO-1, in a more affordable TIG-welded, rather than lugged, frame. (Sorry if I’m using bike industry jargon here, but defining all the terms might make for a long, boring post.)
The Handsome XOXO – photo by Russteaches
For the party, Boulevard owner Kevin Womac built up a She Devil with cruiser bars, basket, chainguard, sprung saddle and brick-red tires. Mechanics from Rapid Transit built a Devil as a nine-speed with upright bars and white tires, as well as an XOXO with a snazzy two-color bar wrap job.
Nothing attracts a crowd of bicyclists like free beer, and the Chrome storefront was packed with young people in interesting cool-weather cycling outfits: cycling caps and knit hats, skinny jeans, bike jerseys and hoodies, flannel shirts and denim jackets with intriguing patches. They checked out San Francisco-based Chrome’s colorful, durable bags, some displayed on a functioning dry cleaner’s rotating rack behind the counter, and they listened to groovy tunes by the post-punk band Vamos.
I buttonholed Chrome / Handsome Midwest rep Dan Copeland for a quick interview. He told me Ben Morrison and Jesse Erickson from Minneapolis’ Alternative Bike and Board shop founded Handsome. Since their shop sold Bridgestone cycles in the 1990s, they were able to get permission from Bridgestone to bring back the XO design.
I asked Copeland why he thought the market was ready for Handsome’s old-fashioned, utilitarian bike designs. “Surly’s a great company,” he said. “But our bikes will never be distributed through [large bike wholesalers] Quality Bike Parts or J & B Importers. We’ll always be just a bike company. We’re only in two stores in Chicago.” He said he selected Boulevard and Rapid after talking with messengers who hung out at the Chrome store, like long-time delivery pros Nico West and the rider-owners from Four Star Courier Collective.
Dan Copeland, far right in knit cap
Next I talked to Doug Haynes, a mechanic from Rapid Transit who can be a bit of a crank when it comes to critiquing bike designs. I asked his opinion of the Handsome models and he surprised me by saying, “I really like ‘em. I ordered an XOXO because it’s a copy of the XO-1 which I’ve adored for a long time but could never afford.”
He thinks Handsome bikes will be a hit. “They’re a good first ‘big boy’ bike for hipsters who’ve come into cycling through fixies but are now ready for more practical bikes with gears, fenders and racks.”
Afterwards I talked to my boss Kevin Womac and we wondered aloud why Chicago has relatively few homegrown, bike-related companies. Sure we’ve got SRAM, a major bike parts manufacturer, plus a handful of small businesses like Po Campo and WIG bags, Kozie Prery and Floyd Boberg caps. (Am I missing any?) But we concluded that, while Chicago is a great city for urban riding, the lack of quick access to country roads, forests and mountains (OK, the first two can be reached by Metra) makes the town a hard sell to would-be bicycle entrepreneurs.
Do you have any ideas for encouraging more folks to start bike businesses in Chicago?