Saturday, March 14, 2009

Reviewing the Kogswell P/R

I've had my 56cm Kogswell 650B P/R for coming on 2 years now - and I've easily put a few thousand in-town miles on her, so I figured I'm qualified to give her a solid review.

A little history
For those of you not familiar with this frame, or the concept of "porteur" style bikes in the first place. "Porteurs" were used to deliver newspapers in Paris in the mid-1900's. Traditionally, they had a large, flat rack built on the front fork - on to which you could stack a heavy load of newspapers. They were popular enough at the time that there were even porteur bike races in Paris (with newspapers and all). Porteurs are enjoying a bit of a renaissance in the last few years, somewhat in response to the current need/craze for utility bikes, but also due to the fact that Kogswell has introduced a very smart, modern frame that takes it's geometry directly from the famous porteurs of or 20th century Paris.

The Kogswell P/R is a sturdy, steel, utility frame with fenders and a slightly more upright, English 3-speed sensibility. Despite the bomb-proof nature of the frame, the tubing is lighter than the classic porteur frames of yesteryear. It's not a featherweight by any means, but for the amount of punishment it can take, it's quite light. Kogswell only sells the frame, fork and fenders - so it's up to you to configure it to your liking. Looking at the Kogswell Flickr group, you can see an infinite number or handlebar types, racks, saddles, and basic stem set-ups - some that facilitate more upright riding, and then others set to more touring, or race-like geometries.

When I first discovered the Kogswell, I was in the market for a year-round commuter/car-replacement that could double as a light touring bike. I had been poking around and for a while, and had been drawn to the look of the classic French touring bikes, with their fancy racks and canvas panniers. Stumbling across the Kogswell site, I immediately knew I had found my frame. I loved the history of the porteur bikes, and the big front racks seemed a perfect platform for built-in lights, store runs, and commuting; in essence, a car-replacement.

When I called Kogswell, I got to speak with Matthew (the owner) who is a bit of a throwback when it comes to dealing with customers. He's likes to spend time with you, getting your measurements and fitting you with the right frame. We must have spent 30 minutes on the phone just chatting about bike fit, what I was looking for in a frame, etc. I'm not sure if he spends this much time with all his customers, but it was refreshing to talk to someone who was as passionate about bikes and bike-building as I was.

By the time the frame arrived (which, unfortunately, took a few months since Kogswell was between shipments) I had all the parts assembled and was ready to build. My build kit originally went like this:

- Panaracer 650b tires
- Velo-Orange porteur rack
- Rivbike Big Back Rack (by Nitto)
- Velocity Synergy 650b rims
- Selle An-Atomica seat
- Front Shimano Nexus Dynamo generator hub
- Soma cranks
- Rear Shimano 8-speed internal hub
- Shimano 8-speed rotary shifter
- Busch&Müller Lumotec headlight
- Busch&Müller Seculite Plus taillight
- Keven's Bag saddle bag from Rivendell
- Paul brakes and levers
- Cork grips

I had originally purchased the Nitto mustache bars, but the bar-ends were to short to accommodate grips + Shimano rotary shifter + brake levers. My local bike shop (7-Corners Cycles in Southeast Portland, OR) ended up pulling a pair of proprietary Jamis mustache bars off of one of their parts bikes in the back of the shop. Their great bars - and, unfortunately, irreplaceable (without pulling some major strings at Jamis I'm assuming).

I built quite a bit of the bike myself, under the tutelage of Rik and Cory at 7-Corners. They handled the heavy lifting, of course - I'm no wheel builder. I decided to use more spacers, and flip the handlebars down, instead of up. If you're curious, that was entirely an aesthetic decision.

How she performs
Like a dream. The steel and bigger tires together provide the smoothest ride you could ask for - but with way more zip than you could ever expect from a cruiser bike or traditional townie. 650B tires (if you've never seen them) are sturdy, smooth, and almost entirely flat-proof. To be fair, there are plenty of 700C tires that are wider, sturdy and virtually flat proof; but to my knowledge, none that are quite as wide - and therefore, none that offer this smooth a ride. After years of riding 120 psi racing tires, the 650B tires (at max 50 psi) run like a Lincoln Town Car. Not nearly as fast, but very, very smooth (have I mentioned that these tires are smooth?). Since the 650B rims are smaller in diameter, the bike gets off the line a tad faster than 700C tires as well. The mustache handle-bars (which admittedly are an accessory that has nothing to do with the frame) are a welcome change from a lifetime of road bars, and provide a little added stability. I have the bars much lower than I think the average Kogswell rider does because I like the racing position. You sacrifice room for taller loads on the front rack, but I haven't found that to be too much of an imposition.

The frame itself is very solid. I had an opportunity to find out just how solid this past summer when I got my first and only wreck on the Kogswell. I was pedaling through to sharp a turn downtown (rookie!) clipped a pedal on the street and kept my balance just long enough to hit the back of a parked car. The front tire of my Kogswell hit the back bumper of the car and the bike just bounced straight back. I caught the stem right in the ribs (which were bruised for a month) and smacked the back of the car with my arms and my helmet. I could catalogue the scrapes and bruises that I sustained - but that bike didn't have a scratch, ding, or dent on it. Crashes aside, the bike is just plain solid. With two fully loaded panniers on the back, I can crank up hills with little flex, and no complaints.

The front rack turned out to be far less useful than I imagined. It's beautiful, and it stays true to the classic look of the Parisian porteur; but the little bars in the front only hold large things like boxes, half-racks, and briefcases (maybe a stack of newspapers...?) Small things fall right through. To be honest, though I don't like the look nearly as much, a plain old Wald front basket would be infinitely more useful (for my purposes). The days that I do like the rack are when I'm carrying large loads - in this it excels. Having a load on the front makes the steering act a bit wonky (the front wheel tends to go where it wants) but after a bit of practice with something heavy up there, you hardly notice. It's also nice for mounting front lights. I have one halogen Busch&Müller Lumotec headlight that gives off a pretty decent amount of light. Not enough to illuminate a street at night, but definitely bright enough to make cars notice you're there. I plan on replacing it with one of those new-fangled LEDs soon (same wattage, much brighter, almost never burn out).

The Kogswell frame ships with matching steel fenders, and these are great. I commute year around in downtown Portland, Oregon with this bike - and if you're not familiar with Portland, it rains a bit here. I always tell people who are interested in bike commuting during the winter that, on a bike, you get more wet from the ground than the sky. The wheels kick up water from wet pavement whether it's raining or not. If you have full fenders, this isn't true. Kogswell fenders are full, and very sturdy, and they keep me dry (from the ground anyway) year around. The fact that they're steel makes it possible for me to mount a taillight right into the rear fender. It's the perfect position to shine right into car-drivers eyes. And with my set-up, (Shimano dynamo hub) the lights are on when the bike is moving. No batteries to replace, no need to remember to turn them off, just get on and go.

I need to give an honorable mention to my drivetrain. I built a Shimano internal 8-speed hub into the rear 650B rim. I had been using this particular set-up on my Bakfiets for the last few years, and loved the maintenance-free aspect so much that I used it on my Kogswell. Since the chain never moves on it's single track, it needs negligible cleaning and oiling. I do it out of habit about 3-4 times a year, but I'll bet I could limit that to once or twice a year without issue. The rotary shifter is my personal preference, but I imagine the rapid-fire shifter would work equally well. I'll also give a nod to the Paul cantilevered breaks. If you're going to travel with heavy loads, it makes sense to spend a little extra for good breaks. Pauls are amazing. I have these same breaks on my cyclocross bike. Properly adjusted, they can stop anything.

About a year after building up the Kogswell, I broke down and bought a Nitto manufactured Big Back Rack for panniers. I have, for the last three years, taken a bi-monthly trip to Seattle on the train, and I always bring the bike up. Hauling two days of clothes, books, paperwork, toiletries and computer equipment was starting to be too much for my back. So I retired my messenger bag (for in-city riding anyway) and opted for a pair of Ortlieb panniers. The bike frame barely noticed. I've loaded those panniers up with an amazing amount of weight, and the frame has never so much as squeaked in response (once even a trip to the liquor store for a party - 3 half gallons and 2 fifths... fun on the hills, I'll tell you).

I have no issues with this bike, but I can point out some aspects that others might find objectionable. Like that it's slow. It's not slow compared to tradition Dutch bikes, townies or cruisers; but if you're coming from a road bike (like I did) than you'll be unimpressed with the rolling resistance of the 50 psi 650B tires, which will feel sluggish in comparison. It's a simple equation really: 120 psi = fast; 50 psi = ain't so fast. The highest psi 650B tires I could find are 70 psi. I haven't ordered those particular tires because I like the indestructible nature of the Panaracers I have on there now. But they, and most 650B tires, are max 50 psi - which means they're slower.

Also, this kind of bike set-up is not light. If you're a weight-weenie, and style means little to you, you could head down to your LBS and take home a similar, more modern touring set-up with racks and everything that weighs in at less than 25 lbs. My Kogswell, with both of it's classically styled steel racks and a filled canvas tool bag weighs in at around 37 lbs. Just a bit more. For me, the style is worth the weight - I've never found it acceptable to look like I just stepped out of an REI catalog.

Kogswell has created a winner. This is about the nicest bike I've ever owned - certainly the favorite bike in my garage. When I set about building this bike, aesthetic was the most important factor. I had planed to build a show-piece, and had hoped that it would turn out to be practical as well. In the end, it has become the most practical bike in my stable, and sees more days of action than any of the other bikes there. It's beautiful, tough, and, as I said, incredibly practical. If you like this style, have the funds, and possess the patience to collect all the parts, I couldn't recommend a bike more.


By the way - if you want to see more (or better quality) pictures of this build, check them out here on Flickr.


Kevin Connors said...

Your setup is nice on this bike, and it sure is pretty! One thing that I was interested in reading it was the overall cost.

Also, how do you find the difference in geometry from your road bike. From staring at the photo, it seems like it might have a slightly more setback. Is that the case?

You mention "virutally flat proof". Have you ever had a flat? Seems like a pain to fix one without quick releases and the fenders and all.

poser said...

cost (oy - not sure if I want to know this number):

- Kogswell frame: $600
- Panaracer tires: $20
- porteur rack: $180
- Back Rack: $160
- Velocity rims: $70
- Selle An-Atomica saddle: $150
- Shimano Nexus Dynamo hub: $90
- Soma cranks: $130
- Shimano 8-speed internal hub: $200
- Shimano 8-speed rotary shifter: $25
- Busch&Müller Lumotec headlight: $40
- Busch&Müller Seculite taillight: $20
- saddle bag: $50
- Paul brakes and levers: $250
- Cork grips: $5
- labor + misc parts: $200-300

total: 2,160 - 2,260

(although, when I originally put this together I seem to remember my total being a bit more than this. I'm probably forgetting some expense or another.)

Something to keep in mind is that I got a lot of fairly high end parts (the racks, the drive train, the brakes, etc.) - you could build a comparable bike for hundreds less if you went with cheaper parts and a standard drive train.

The geometry is different from a road bike - but - I have mustache bars on there, which do push the rider a bit more forward than standard cruiser bars. I also have them flipped down instead of up, which gets my riding position pretty low. If I were to remove two of those spacers, my position (aside from the hand width) would be identical to my position on my road bike. The seat tube is about the same angle as your standard road bike, so it's not too hard to replicate the geometry. Most Kogswell owners (based on the pictures I've seen) tend to sit a bit more upright than the road position.

I've had two flats in two years - both after snow when massive metal slivers are on the road from car's snow-chains; one flat in the front, one in the back. the front is as easy to take off as on a standard bike (except that I have to use a hex wrench) but yes, the rear is a pain in the ass with the internal hub back there. It's like anything else though - once you've learned the steps and done it a few time, it gets easy. But to your point: my wife has this same set up on her in-town cruiser, and thank god she hasn't had any flats. There's no way she could change that rear flat by herself (not that she could change a flat on a standard , quick-release, road tire) but the fenders, hex-bolts, and internal hub make things much more complicated.

Freewheel said...

Beautiful, elegant-looking bike. I was wondering about two potential drawbacks to your set-up: 1) with cargo on the front rack, like a bag of groceries, wouldn't that make for difficult steering? 2) risk of theft - your bike sticks out like a rolls royce. Have either of these been issues for you?

poser said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
poser said...

Freewheel: Steering with a load on the front does take a bit of getting used to. The heavier the load, the more the bike tries to steer itself. That said, I think you might hardly notice a bag of groceries. I frequently carry home garbage and recycling from my office in Portland, and have, at times, carried 4-5 full bags - all strapped to the front rack with bungee-cords - without a problem. It helps to distribute the load, which is why I also have panniers on the back. That allows me to, for example, pack the groceries in the back, and strap down the case of beer in the front.

To date, nobody has tried to steal the bike (or I haven't caught anyone). Three points on this subject: 1) I live in Portland, OR; which actually does have a high incidence of bike theft - but it also has a Ton of other bikes. So while my bike might stick out a bit (and mostly because there aren't a lot bikes this particular style around) it doesn't stick out very much in Portland, where there are plenty of very nice bikes all over the place. 2) I've had three bikes stolen in the past, and every time it was unlocked in an unsecured environment (like someone's garage, or an open dorm room). These days, I have a tendency to only lock her up in secure, well lit areas with a very nice lock (Kryptonite Fahgettaboudit U-lock). 3) I really do use this bike year around, in a very rainy town, and I don't generally wash her too often. So while she looks like a Rolls Royce in the pictures, she doesn't look much like that the rest of the year.

So I guess, in answer to your question: yes, I do worry about the Kogswell getting stolen. And I go to great pains to make sure she isn't.

MRC said...


Nice wheels. I have been down a path similar to you. Riv, Vel Orange and then Kogswell in reviewing frames for a Randonneur bike I wish to build (I'm thinking of getting a Surly LHT), while all this time I'm slowly building up an inventory of parts. The bike will also be my daily ride and currently I'm getting around on a road frame. My main purpose for the bike would be rando's how would you feel riding this thing 100 miles + I would be getting a larger frame and probably go with 700c wheels and 32mm (1 1/4)tyres. A penny for your thoughts?

RonV said...

Very nice review. One point though - everybody that I have found that actually measures rolling resistance finds that supple fat tires are actually faster, because they absorb road noise without slowing down. They FEEL slower, because you don't get the chatter that a stiff tire lets through. I have found this to be true for me - have you compared times between you P/R and a road bike?

Thanks again and enjoy the ride!