As I was walking up to Laid Back Bikes on Wednesday, ready to borrow the Paper Bicycle for the demonstration, I started to get a bit concerned about the whole single gear thing. After all, I knew the bike wasn’t ACTUALLY made out of paper, in fact it’s rather solidly built out of steel. And Edinburgh has an entirely unnecessary amount of topography with very steep streets, flights of stairs, roads that turn out to be about 40 foot below other roads and a nice scattering of cobbles to make the cyclist’s life more difficult. While I had been quite happy cycling around the malarial flatlands of South London on a bike with only one functioning gear, as soon as I moved to Scotland I quickly got that sorted. If I didn’t watch my route in Embra, I was going to be spending more time pushing this bike than riding it. And that would be no fun at all.
I needn’t have worried, as it turned out. For a start, Dave of Laid Back Bikes regularly runs recumbent tours around Edinburgh and so was adept at finding routes that avoided the worst of the gradients as we cycled to and from the demonstration. And besides, single gear or no single gear, the Paper Bicycle didn’t seem to have any trouble climbing hills, even with me at the pedals. After the first little ‘oh help, steep bit, change down, oh damn …’ I didn’t really find I missed the gears at all. I’m not saying that hills were effortless, for I was certainly a bit puffed as we came up the first significant hill, but I never had that feeling of running out of gears, and in fact I never even needed to get out of the saddle. Whether it was the geometry, the build quality, the big fat floaty tyres or some sort of hidden engine in the seat tube, the bike just kept on going up and up and up in a way that even my own bike doesn’t (there’s a rather more scientific discussion of why this should be so on Lovely Bike if you want to get all technical on me – see the comments). Of course, that could be because my own bike has spent the last few months cycling along awesomely muddy roads and through floods without, perhaps, the sort of love and attention lavished on it that it deserves. There’s a lot to be said for full chain cases in a Scottish winter. And I suppose, given that it was designed from the ground up in Ayrshire, that is entirely to be expected.
Other than the lack of a rack, which apparently newer models will have, I was generally pretty impressed with the Paper Bicycle. I’m not the most knowledgeable person when it comes to the technicalities of bikes, but I do know what I like, and I liked it a lot. It didn’t quite give me the upright regal bearing you get on a propr dutch bike (although if I’d had the handlebars a little higher it might have). There’s a level of attention to detail to the design that makes it really pleasing to the eye – like the fact that when you kick up the integrated kick stand it lines up with the chain case thing to look like a little chrome exhaust pipe. It has everything you’d expect from a sensible city bike – full chain case, mudguards, dynamo lighting, reliable brakes – a true get on and go bike. It attracted second glances (even allowing for the fact that I was following a bloke on a recumbent) and admiring looks, which is always nice. In a handsome, dress-up city like Edinburgh it’s nice to have a bike you can ride in smart clothes without worrying about oil. And you can get it powdercoated to order almost any colour you choose so you could even match it to your favourite outfit if you wanted to really work the cycle chic vibe. If I lived in London still, I’d buy one right now and ride it everywhere – although I’m not entirely sure, without the rear triangle, how I’d lock it up. As it is, even as a single speed and with our hills, I’d be seriously tempted. It’s one of those things where you start trying to think of reasons why you need one (it would make a great guest bike! It could be my winter bike! Err, I need a bike that matches my coat!) however tenuous they might be. Dave described it as a ‘Scottish Pashley’ which certainly captures the build quality (and possibly the weight – it’s not a bike for hoisting in the air at a demo, put it that way). But it’s not a retro looking bike at all, just a rather handsome one.
But don’t take my word for it. If you’re in Edinburgh at all, book yourself a test ride at Laid Back Bikes (or if you fancy becoming part of a real subculture, go on one of his recumbent tours). He’ll even show you round the city on your own bike, if you want to know the sneaky ways avoiding the worst of the hills. And that alone in Edinburgh has got to be worth plenty of your English pounds.