Barclay Cycle Hire is fantastic, but the inability to ever find a docking space in Soho at 10am will quickly lead to craving a bike of one’s own.
When I forfeited my zone 1-2 travelcard and put the money saved towards buying a bicycle, it was life-changing. Not always in a good way, I would think whilst battling against gale-force winds in the depths of winter and recalling the stuffy warmth of the Central Line. But mostly . . . mostly it was great.
I had four essential criteria when deciding which bicycle to buy:
- Comfort (lots)
- Reliability (much)
- Maintenance (none)
- Normality (NO LYCRA)
Plus secondary requirements:
- Looks (not boring)
- Carrying ability (like a pack-horse)
- Affordability (not necessarily cheap, but good value)
- Technical knowledge/interest required (as close to zero as makes no difference)
I was lucky because my boyfriend had previously done extensive research, and Workcycles – a small Dutch company, based in Amsterdam – had consistently come out on top. They have some international suppliers, but their presence in the UK is small enough that encountering a fellow owner causes much excitement and frenzied waving.
I was loathe to buy what’s effectively the girls’ version of my boyfriend’s bike (I mean, I don’t even match my nail varnish) but the facts were inescapable: the Oma was a bloody good bicycle and fit all my criteria. She’s built with an Azor frame and Workcycles’ carefully-chosen amendments, so I researched, read blog posts, followed other Azor-riders – on twitter, not literally – although we did track down the one very amenable Oma-owner within a 50 mile radius for a brief try-before-you-buy. Although I was saddened that the Oma only came in two colours (black or black – seriously – albeit matt or gloss), I decided it would allow me to decorate her in my own inimitable style.
I’ve now owned my lovely Oma (her name is Grazel) for 16 months and can happily say that buying her was absolutely the right decision and, dear readers, I will tell you why . . .
I’ve suffered from back and shoulder pain throughout my life, and was aware that hunching over handlebars exacerbated this. Whilst even riding the almost-upright Boris Bikes to and from work left me aching, I simply don’t get that with Grazel. She’s a smooth, comfortable ride, and is so huge that she takes most of the impact from potholes. The best possible description is “stately”.
The Azor frame comes in four sizes (I’m 5’8″ and have the 57cm). You can raise/lower both the saddle and handlebars to fit your arm length and riding style. It takes a bit of wiggling but once there, it fits like a glove.
In London, safety is everything, and I wanted to feel protected. My boyfriend was once hit by a car whilst on his Workcycle and only the front forks needed straightening out, whereas a titanium frame would likely have crumpled underneath him. I decided I would rather arrive somewhere ten minutes slower, but in one piece – and Grazel fits the bill. She’s sturdy, so isn’t too affected by wind, and you might as well get the mega hard-core tyres (Schwalbe Marathon Plus), fancy Brooks saddle, basket, or fairy lights (any excuse) since at a base weight of 25kg, such additions won’t affect your speed.
The weight does require some compromises. I can’t carry her up a flight of stairs (I have to ask my boyfriend every time, through my gritted feminist teeth), and hills are hard-going, but certainly not impossible. But she’s far less likely to be stolen, and once rolling along flat ground, little stops her. I can’t dash away from traffic lights, but I take great delight in cruising downhill with nary a pedal rotation. She’s the bike equivalent of a Rolls Royce, or the tortoise against the road bike’s hare; slow and steady wins the race, or at the very least arrives looking utterly glorious.
I owned two cars for a total of thirteen years and never once changed the oil on either. Regardless of how much time I hoped I would dedicate to my bicycle’s upkeep, the reality was simple: I wouldn’t spend a single moment. I wanted a bike which would requite the absolute bare minimum of maintenance, and by bare minimum, I meant none whatsoever.
Happily, the Oma is my girl. As one Cambridge-based bike seller and mechanic told me: “I don’t make a penny off maintenance on these bikes. Once I sell them, I never see them again. They just don’t have any problems”.
I’m told that daily maintenance is usually standard but for the Oma, it’s non-existent. Put it this way: in 16 months, I have never oiled the chain, never cleaned anything, never changed a tyre (touch wood!!) . . . oh, and I keep her outside, all year round. This is because everything is internal: the gears and brakes are hidden away in the wheel hubs, and the chain is enclosed in a plastic case, so everything’s protected from the elements. In fact, when my Kryptonite lock stopped working, I was astonished to discover that I should have been oiling it regularly, and the nice people at Evans Cycles were astonished that I hadn’t. Well, I don’t oil anything else. I’ve taken Grazel for a service once (admittedly she’s due another) and on one occasion the chain fell off, possibly because she fell over on a train. But other than that, I just leave her in the wind and rain, then hop on and off I go.
I didn’t want to change my life because I’d started riding a bike, and with the Oma, I didn’t have to. Lycra and cycle-specific clothing are entirely unnecessary. The enclosed chain case means my clothes are protected. I’ve even cycled in a pure white maxi dress and lived to tell the tale.
I upgraded my pedals to these amazing ergonomic ones, partly because the blurb on the packet seemed legit, but mostly because with the rough instead of spiky surface, they are much kinder to shoes. I’ve cycled in boots, sandals, platforms, heels and ballet pumps and never had trouble nor damaged my shoes. However, because these pedals are almost twice the size of normal ones, they’d look ridiculous on any other bike; whereas on the Oma, they’re perfectly in proportion.
Ugly is a matter of opinion. Boring is not. (Let’s be honest: to the untrained eye, there is very little variety between mountain/road/hybrid bikes. All are identical. All are dull).
The Oma isn’t perhaps as conventionally pretty as a Bobbin or a Pashley Princess. Where they’re delicate, lightweight, and multicoloured, she’s sturdy, hefty and monochrome. Where they’re retro, she’s built in the traditional style (there is a difference). But Grazel is the result of true craftmanship, has an elegance in the details of her engineering, and next to other bicycles, is simply magnificent. Unlike those superficial, faux-vintage copycats, she’s just so well-made and that’s beautiful in itself. If/when I change the current saddle (Selle Royale – comfortable but graceless), she’ll be even more classically charming.
Besides which, cover a basket in a meadow of flowers and now who’s pretty?
Simply put: I carry loads of crap. I wanted my bike to do it for me. Most days I just have one very heavy pannier attached to one side of the rear rack and it has no influence on the handling or stability. I’ve even carried my boyfriend on it – trust me, that back rack is seriously sturdy.
The Oma also comes (optionally) with a removable front rack. This allows a basket to be attached to the frame and not the handlebars or the wheel, so the steering isn’t affected. I attached my basket to the rack with cable ties so I can still easily remove the entire rack (not that I would ever want to because it’s literally blooming gorgeous). I regularly fill the basket with heavy shopping and bulky items. I’ve simply never had to adjust my consumerist behaviour: hurrah!
On one memorable occasion immediately before Christmas, I schlepped home four bottles of champagne, various items of clothing, a selection of presents, and an enormous panettone. There is no way on God’s green earth I could have managed it on any other bicycle.
It’s all relative, of course, but buying it through the Cycle To Work scheme helped enormously here. In the end, with all of the accoutrements, I paid around £55 per month for a year, with a final one-off payment at the end. That’s considerably less than a travelcard. I didn’t feel that I skimped on any of the extras I wanted, but equally, I would have been prepared to pay more. Since then, the only payments I’ve made have been buying more flowers for the basket.
Technical knowledge/interest required
I can’t bear the cycling forums. I ducked in to a couple when I was first researching and realised, quite simply: I don’t care.
I DON’T CARE ABOUT GEAR MANUFACTURERS AND THE BENEFITS OF HUB BRAKES.
Much like the relationship I have with my body, wi-fi router, and tax contributions as a PAYE employee, I just want my bicycle to work without worrying about the mechanics of it all. I can’t wade through the technical crap. I’m thinking about other stuff. I don’t care.
With the Oma: I don’t have to. She works. It’s brilliant. No upkeep, no specific understanding, no technical knowledge. No need to sit around discussing brake cables or speeds. No spanners in the pannier, or puncture repair kits in the basket; no WD40, broken nails, intimate knowledge of wheel ratios or being on first-name terms with the guys at the local repair shop. Just an annual check-up, then throw your handbag in the basket, get on . . . and go. It doesn’t get much more convenient, enjoyable, easy or pleasant than that.