Retro bicycles, men's and women's, are making a comeback. It's a fact that you can't avoid - advertisements for retro bicycles are all around us on social media, as well as on other, more traditional advertising mediums. And there are plenty of good reasons for that - retro bikes are great for a lot of things, after all, and they do have a certain charm you can't simply ignore. But with all of those things, as well as the changes we see in bicycles today, one question must be answered - what really is a retro bicycle? How would you identify a retro road bike if you want to buy one? How are retro cruiser bicycles different from modern bicycles?
I know - three questions, not one. But we'll answer all of them, and then some. We'll look at the retro bicycles you can buy direct, as well as where they got their inspiration for when initially doing the design. We will also check out what retro bicycles should have in order to be good daily drivers, and we'll see a great suggestion for your next buy. Without wasting any more of your time, let's dive into the world of retro bicycles!
What are retro bicycles?
When it comes to the term "retro", it's usually used to indicate something that was fashionable or popular at a given time in the past. Note that not every old-fashioned bike with basket is a retro bicycle. In the world of bicycles, there are two main categories. The first one is retro bicycles that were made in the past, ten, twenty, thirty years ago. There are still perfect examples of such bikes, especially classic bikes, out there, in perfect, rideable condition. The issue with them is that they use old technologies and materials. The technologies may have made a durable bike, but those materials are significantly worn out, and many such retro bicycles aren't really safe for day-to-day use.
It's the other category we're more interested in. Of course, we're talking about the modern interpretation of a retro bicycle. It's an undeniable fact that the styling and looks are impressive. That's why many manufacturers try to replicate them. However, they do so with the modern technologies and materials that may have not been available in the past. This often makes them better for daily use, more durable, and higher quality in general.
Who are these "modern" retro bicycles for?
Considering that the best retro bicycles, even modern ones, follow quite a lot of traditional guidelines, not for everyone. For example, retro cruiser bicycles aren't made to go extremely fast, and they aren't made to go off-road. So, how are they for?
To begin with, they're perfect for people who like a relaxed experience. The frame on these bicycles puts you in an upright position, which is very comfortable. They also have a comfortable saddle, grips and tires, which only add to the experience. With some higher quality brands, you'll find that accessories round out the package. Things such as mudguards, racks, baskets, they'll all make things better.
Last but not least, they're perfect for people who want a bicycle they can ride on a daily basis. One that will take them to and from work, or wherever they need to go. One that will allow them to carry all their belongings comfortably, as well as any groceries they might've bought on the way home.
If you recognize yourself in any of these categories, do read on. We'll take a closer look at some key features of "modern" retro bikes. We'll see what makes them comfortable, what makes them useful, and what are some key advantages that make them an attractive option as the best bikes for cruising. Let's go.
Let's start with the small things
Even though there are far bigger parts, the thing that makes modern retro bicycles so useful is the number of accessories. What should a good bicycle come with, to make it great for daily driving? Well, the basics are usually safety features. Things such as lights and a bell are truly essential. Then, you've got protection for your clothes - mudguards, chain guard, wheel guard. Last but not least, there are the storage options, usually in the shape of a basket and rear rack.
Safety first - good retro bicycles should come with lights and a bell
Unfortunately, it's become standard for manufacturers to not include even these basic items. That's how you'll recognize a good manufacturer, though. When you buy a bike from them, you won't have to spend extra money on making it safe.
The lights are truly essential. When you're using your bicycle as a means of transportation, chances are you'll need to do it after sunset, or at night. Riding in less-than-optimal lighting conditions without a light is far from a smart decision, especially with the amount of other traffic you'll be riding in. And they're also often required by law, too.
A front light should be powerful. Not so powerful that it will bother oncoming traffic, but enough so you can see any potholes or other obstacles in the road ahead of you. That kind of light will also be enough for that oncoming traffic to be able to see you as well. The rear light doesn't have to be as powerful. Something that will allow cars and other cyclists coming from behind to see you there should be enough.
The other important factor here is a bell. Wherever you live in the world, chances are you're experiencing one major issue - people that take up the entire cycling path. When you're riding your bike, and they get in the way, you do need a way to let them know you're coming up from behind. A bell is the best way, and they'll more than likely get out of your way.
Your clothing should remain intact if possible
When you're trying to get to work, you need to look nice. What if the streets aren't dry? Riding through a puddle of water, or even worse, mud, will definitely ruin your clothes. Tires are notorious for spraying dirt and water all around you. And even if the streets are dry, there's another risk. You could have your pants, or skirt, or dress, get caught up in the rear wheel. Or even worse, the chain. This will almost certainly result in ruined clothes, and most definitely in a ruined day. But there are ways to solve it.
Mudguards cover a certain length of the wheels, both at the front and the back. When you pass through a puddle, the water or mud stays contained within the mudguards, instead of spraying all over your clothes. This is a crucial accessory, one that should come on any bike you buy.
Next, we have the wheel guard. Many bikes come without them, which is a mistake. A wheel guard covers, on both sides, a section of the rear wheel, from the hub, to the tire. It's usually the rear triangle, which is where there's the largest chance of your clothes getting caught up. This is most important for the ladies who ride their bikes with skirts or dresses. That type of loose clothing can easily get in the spokes. With a wheel guard, you're safe and your clothes won't be ruined.
Last but not least, there is the chain guard. The chain guard covers (almost) the entire chain, as well as the crankset. Many pants have been torn when they get caught up in between the front chainring and the chain, and even if you don't tear them, they'll certainly be really dirty. A chain guard helps with this quite a bit.
Let's discuss storage
Retro bicycles aren't all about getting from one place to another. They're also about being practical. If you need a way to get your documents, or groceries, or whatever else, from point A to point B, they'll give you a solution. How, you may ask? By offering storage options. Let's say you're coming back from work on your retro bicycle. You realize your fridge is empty, and you'll need some kind of dinner in the evening, as well as breakfast in the morning. Your dog is out of food, too. And then you look at your bike, and realize that none of this is an issue.
You stop in front of local supermarket, and go inside to buy everything you need. When you come out, you have a rear rack, and a spacious front basket, both waiting for you. Unless you're carrying something that's very heavy, loading up both storage areas won't throw you off balance too much. The rear rack has a spring-loaded mechanism that will hold everything in place. The front basket, on the other hand, has high walls and a stiff construction to ensure that whatever you put inside, will stay inside. Both are excellent accessories, and something that all retro bicycles should come with.
Oh, and there's one last trick up the retro bicycles' sleeve - a double kickstand. A regular kickstand does allow you to park your bicycle pretty much anywhere. However, it will be leaning on one side. Loading items on it isn't really practical like this. A double kickstand, though, keeps retro bicycles completely upright. They're not just much less likely to tip over, but putting items on the rack and in the basket is much, much easier.
Retro bicycles are famously comfortable, but why?
We already mentioned retro bicycles and how comfortable they are. There isn't a single thing that makes them so comfortable, though. Instead, there's a combination of components, and together, they affect the overall comfort level of the bicycle. The first and most important one is the frame. Then, you have the handlebars, saddle and grips, followed by the tires. It's impossible to keep things short, so let's go into detail and see how each of these components impacts the overall comfort of retro bicycles.
The frame has the most impact
This one is kinda obvious, since the frame is the largest component on not just retro bicycles, but all bikes in general. The frame impacts the comfort in two major ways. First, we have the geometry, and second, we have the choice of materials.
When it comes to the geometry, modern bicycles often put you in an ass-up-head-down position. This may be aerodynamic and comfortable for racers and active cyclists in cycling clothing, but for the everyday rider, not so much. There's far too much strain on your arms, neck and shoulders for it to be comfortable. However, retro bicycles have you sitting completely upright. This puts most of your pressure on your sit bones, which are made for, you guessed it - sitting. No strain on your neck, back, shoulders, or arms, and maneuvering the bicycle is much easier.
A few things about materials
Frames are usually made of either carbon fiber, aluminum or steel. There are the very expensive titanium ones, as well as some other one-offs that we won't be getting into.
Carbon fiber is the priciest of the three. It's also, by far, the most lightweight. This is why all road and mountain racing bikes used by the pros are made of carbon fiber. You simply can't find anything that's as light, and as durable. However, it has one glaring downside when compared to retro bicycles - it is incredibly stiff. This means that all of the vibrations from the road will be transferred to you. At the end of the day, you end up with an uncomfortable riding experience.
Next, we have aluminum. Even though much heavier than carbon fiber, it's a bit less forgiving when it comes to soaking up vibrations and small bumps. It is also much cheaper than carbon fiber, which is another benefit when you're the end user. Most decent entry level bikes, as well as the midrange models are made of aluminum, because it's a good middle ground as far as weight, stiffness and price goes. However, it's still a touch too stiff for retro bicycles.
Last but not least, we have steel. Steel is the heaviest of the three, but it's also the most forgiving one. It soaks up a lot of the road's vibrations and small bumps, and leaves you with a very comfortable bike. There's also the fact that even back in the days, retro bicycles were usually made of steel, so you're getting much closer to them, even with a modern bike. And the weight we mentioned? That's something you can balance out by using lightweight, aluminum components on the rest of the bike.
The handlebars, grips and saddle are an important combination
You may think the handlebars aren't too important, but you'd be terribly wrong. Their position, as well as the backsweep and upsweep are crucial to comfort. When you're sitting upright, you don't want your hands to be forced into a position that isn't natural for them, just so you can ride your bike. A handlebar that's swept back is just right, as your hands will be in a pretty natural position, which is much less fatiguing. This way, you'll be able to keep on cycling longer, and you'll remain comfortable. Here's a pretty detailed guide for you, too.
The grips are the contact point between you and your handlebar. They're also one of the main contact points for retro bicycles, aside from the saddle, which does make them important. A pair of comfortable grips can make a world of difference to your riding experience. On a good, quality bicycle, you'll get comfortable grips that can be made from a variety of materials. Some common ones include rubber and leather, but there are many comfortable options for you to choose from.
The all-important saddle
It's the main contact point between you and your bicycle, and it absolutely must be comfortable. Three main things impact saddle comfort - the shell, the padding, and the cover material. With the shell, you want a wide shell that's not too soft. A soft shell will result in too much saddle flex, and contrary to popular belief, this isn't all that comfortable. There's also the option of a spring-loaded saddle, which will absorb a lot of bumps and vibrations from the road, and may be an option worth looking into.
The padding is the key thing here. While racing saddles often come with little to no padding, professional cyclists resort to bib shorts that have padding inside them. Chances are your jeans or skirt don't, so your saddle should. The most common, and most comfortable option here is gel padding. Gel does maintain its shape for quite some time, and is just the right amount of plush. Some cheaper options resort to foam, but it's too soft and can easily get deformed.
Last but not least, we have the cover material. While a true premium option is leather, and it fits the retro bicycles theme very well, leather is very expensive and can be quite hard on your rear. We wouldn't bet on you finding leather on anything but high-end bikes. An alternative, and a good one at that, is faux leather. Faux leather is the material of choice for most of the saddles you'll come across, as it does the job fairly well. It provides minimal rubbing with your clothes, and is pretty weather resistant. Oh, and it's pretty durable, too. There are always options as far as saddles go, so you could replace yours if you don't like it.
How do the tires fit in the comfort of retro bicycles?
We spoke about the frame that ties everything together. We spoke about the grips and saddle, which are the contact points between you and your bicycle. What we didn't discuss is the contact point between your bicycle, and the surface you're riding on. And this is where the tires come in, as they're that contact point. So, what are your options?
There are the skinny tires often found on road racing bikes. They're slim, they work best at an incredibly high pressure, and they have extremely little rolling resistance. However, they're very hard, and absorb little to no vibrations and bumps from the road. This makes them very uncomfortable and stiff-feeling.
You also have the rough tread of mountain bike tires. They grip incredibly well, especially off road. You can ride them at lower pressures, which results in a comfortable ride. However, they have too much rolling resistance, so they'll slow you down quite a bit.
The perfect middle ground? Balloon tires. We're talking wide, soft tires but with low, minimal tread. They get you the best of both worlds. You'll enjoy the comfort of a wide, mountain bike tire, as well as rolling resistance much closer to that of a road bike tires. CST's Metropolitan Palm Bay balloon tires are great examples of such tires as well as excellent performers.
Tires aren't all about comfort, though. With balloon tires, you also get a thing that's usually overlooked which is tire puncture protection. CST's Metropolitan Palm Bay balloon tires, for example, feature APL which is a respectable 0.7mm layer of rubber between the tread and the casing. Coupled with reflective sidewalls for improved night visibility, these are a great choice!
You can also get a few more answers from our bicycle tires guide if you need them, too.
The remaining components of "modern" retro bicycles shouldn't go unnoticed
We spoke about most of the components, but there are some that we left out. We're talking about the brakes, and the drivetrain. These are two things that have evolved quite a bit from the era of the original retro bicycles, which is why a modern variant is worth getting. You'll get modern brakes that have a lot more power and modulation, as well as a drivetrain that lets you ride those retro bicycles on a variety of terrains.
The brakes are a crucial upgrade over the original retro bicycles
The retro bicycles of the past had quite a few variations when it comes to brakes. Some of them had coaster brakes, which were rear wheel only, and were engaged by spinning the pedals backwards and applying pressure. While they were effective, they offered little modulation and not a lot of stopping power. Tire brakes (yes, you read that right, tire) were also an option. You had a piece of wood that would press down on the front tire from the top, effectively slowing down the wheel, and consequently, the bike. And while they had decent modulation, power was seriously lacking.
The last option were rim brakes, and that's what we have today as well. Well, in a much more advanced form, but the basics are the same. Two brake levers on the handlebars, and a single brake per wheel. With the original retro bicycles, these brakes were nothing more than stamped pieces of metal, put together. They did work. However, they were prone to bending under pressure, and could be damaged easily. The pads themselves weren't really durable either, and a slightly bent rim resulted in very bumpy braking.
Today's variant of the rim brakes are made in molds, which gives them a lot of stiffness. They not only give you a lot of braking power, but you'll also get quite a bit of modulation. Durability also isn't an issue, as they aren't as prone to bending and other deformations. The pads used have much better materials, so they'll last a bit longer, too.
You will find three main drivetrain options with retro bicycles
In the time of the original retro bicycles, you would only get a single drivetrain option - the single speed variant. Today, though, you have plenty of drivetrain options. Not all, however, are on the modern interpretation of retro bicycles.
Single speed still exists
And not only does it exist, but it's also very popular in certain riding circles like riders who love fixie bikes. However, for day-to-day retro bicycles, a single speed option isn't really useful. You'll have hills to climb every once in a while, and sometimes you will just want to take things slow and in an easier gear. A single speed bike doesn't give you any of these options, practically robbing you of a lot of versatility and choices.
The three-speed drivetrain is a bit better
The three-speed drivetrain, which is available with internal and external gearing, is a better option. You have three speeds to choose from, which means you could go slow, or climb a small hill, you could go fast or ride a fast descent, or you could stay in the middle. Living with a three-speed bicycle is actually interesting, but it's certainly not for everyone. You're still very limited in terms of gearing, and any hills that have more incline will be an issue. And it gets even more difficult if you choose to load up your bike with groceries.
A seven-speed drivetrain is perfect for retro bicycles
It really is - living with a 7-speed drivetrain bike is a pleasure. This, like a three speed option is also available with internal and external gearing, but you get a lot more versatility here. With a seven-speed bicycle, you could easily conquer most of the hills you'll come across in your day-to-day riding, even if you're carrying groceries. Whenever you feel tired, just put your bike into an easier gear and slow down for a minute. Feel like you have some extra energy? There's a more difficult gear to push yourself a bit more, and ride a bit faster.
What's that about internal and external gearing?
We mentioned this a couple of times, but some people may not know what the difference is. At the handlebars of modern retro bicycles, there is a shifter. This is what you use to change gears. However, gears can be changed internally, or externally.
With an internal drivetrain, the cable from the shifter, the one that actuates the shift, goes inside your rear hub. The rear hub is where the entire shifting mechanism is, but you can't see anything from the outside. There are some obvious benefits here. For starters, the elements can't do much harm since all moving parts are housed inside the hub. Also, if you do hit or crash your bike, chances are the internal gearing system will remain undamaged, which is more than can be said about derailleurs. However, adjusting such a system, or changing the cable, is very difficult. It will more than likely require a trip to your local bike shop.
With external drivetrains, the shifter's cable terminates into a derailleur. The derailleur moves your chain up and down on sprockets, each of which has a different number of teeth. More teeth equal an easier gear, while less teeth equal a more difficult gear. Even though this can easily be impacted by mud or dirt, cleaning and maintaining it is actually pretty easy. The bigger issue is the derailleur that you have sticking out the back of your bike, since you can easily smash it on something if you aren't careful. On the other hand, maintaining and adjusting this kind of system is a piece of cake, even if you need to change the cable.
Is there a bike that lives up to the expectations for modern retro bicycles?
Yes, there is. The Peace Bicycles Dreamer is the perfect "modern" variant of the retro bicycles we had years ago. It comes with all the things you love about retro bicycles, and all the improvements you expect from a modern cruiser bike. To begin with, you have a chromoly steel frame in either a diamond frame shape, or a step through frame variant, so you can choose depending on whether you're a man or a lady. The handlebars have just the right backsweep, and the grips and saddle are as comfortable as it gets. Plush, wide, balloon tires round out the entire package.
In terms of accessories, you get literally everything. A basket and rear rack, with a double kickstand? Check. Mudguards, wheel guard, chain guard? Check. Lights and a loud bell? Check! A 7-speed drivetrain for the ultimate versatility? You get the point. There's nothing you won't like about it, especially if you're a fan of retro bicycles. Check out all our options to buy bikes online here.