Rarely are these bikes manufactured by the car companies whose badge they wear. The special carbon-fibre frame used in the Ferrari bike we tested is, however, manufactured by Ferrari Engineering. In some cases, the car company involvement is no greater than supplying a badge, specifying the colour and hiking the bike maker's usual price. In other cases the bike is unique, although based heavily on another bike. All the engineering work will have been done by the bicycle maker. Again, prices tend to be high.
Two car makers that do at least some of the bicycle engineering themselves are Lotus (which memorably supplied Chris Boardman with his Olympic Games- winning bike five years ago) and Porsche. Both companies have large outside engineering consultancies, able to turn their hands to any mechanical problem, including that of conceiving bikes that look or go better than the norm. Here, we sample three of the latest bike offerings from the car industry - a Porsche, designed and engineered jointly by Porsche and German bike specialists Votec; the RAC bike, designed by Alex Moulton, one of Britain's best bike brains; and a Ferrari, produc ed in conjuntion with the top Italian bike maker Colnago.
It's a bit hard getting your head around a bike that costs pounds 3,400. It's also a bit hard getting your backside on to the saddle. The seating position is unusually high, an upshot of the Porsche having front and rear suspension.
The suspension makes for an unusually cushioning ride, although, like some German cars, the seat is hard and uncomfortable. The saddle is about as thick as a razor and about as comfortable as sitting on a metal bar. You need to wear those silly cycle shorts, with chamois leather inserts in the crotch, before you'd get any owner-satisfaction from this bike.
The front and rear suspension is designed to make for faster and smoother cross-country and downhill mountain-bike racing, the real point behind the Porsche FS (for Full Suspension) bike.
The Porsche also has proper disc brakes front and rear. I have never ridden a bike that stops more suddenly, though they also add complication, which partly goes against the simple purity of good bicycle design.
Indexed eight-speed gears work with triple front rings driven by Porsche- designed cranks. To change gear, you simply turn the handlebar grip. Pity the gears were so badly adjusted on the test bike: most of my wrist twists were greeted by the graunching of chains and sprockets at war.
The detailing is quite gorgeous. It is a bike that you can pore over for hours. And, to ride, it is beautifully balanced. It feels a superior product, when you take up station behind the bars. But it really isn't that much better than my five-year old Ridgeback. Which cost one-tenth as much.
The Porsche FS costs pounds 3,400 and is available through all official Porsche dealers. 0345-911911 for more details.
The bike that the RAC has chosen to endorse, and decorate with its logo, is a variation of the Moulton All-Purpose Bike (or APB). Alex Moulton, who fittingly also designs car suspension systems, created the cycle to provide a more affordable complement to his very expensive AM (advanced Moulton) series of small-wheeled bicycles which are built in his own small factory. The APBs, on the other hand are made by the Midlands company Pashley to Moulton's specifications. They all share the same Moulton "space-frame" with its characteristic small (20-inch) wheels, but they differ greatly in such matters as gearing, handlebars, tyres, brakes, wheel rims, and so on. The model chosen by the RAC is the APB7, the seven standing for the number of gears, which are selected by the new Sturmey Archer Sprinter "hub" gear - an advanced version of the kind that used to be mounted on three-speed kid's bikes.
I tested the RAC bike around London, mainly on my daily eight-mile commute to the Independent's office in Canary Wharf. And, I must reveal, my first ride on it was one of the worst I can remember: the gears kept slipping up and down; the chain came off the rear cog wheel three times; the brakes squealed and the seat post kept slipping down. Still, I knew no bike could be this bad, so I took it round to the local bike shop. All the problems were to do with the "set-up", and after adjustments I was soon back on the road riding a beautifully functioning machine.
There were still little problems: the saddle chafed my thigh (so I replaced it with my own), there was no bell, no lights, and no rack to carry necessities. After adding all these, I was finally ready to carry on commuting. My route to work is mainly along the Grand Union Canal towpath, which provides a good obstacle course for testing a bike. There is much stopping and starting to avoid pedestrians, fishermen and other cyclists - and the powerful cantilever "V" (vertical lever) brakes do the job very well. The surface of the towpath is made up of uneven paving stones and loose gravel, over which the wide tyres and Moulton front and rear wheel suspension floated serenely.
The most obvious feature of the APB is its small wheels, which provide several advantages. They are naturally strong - useful on potholed urban streets; the short overall length of the bike makes turning in and out of traffic easy; and the lowered centre of gravity makes for good balance at slow speeds and when carrying loads on the rear carrier rack. The RAC says it will be endorsing other bikes for other purposes. It has chosen wisely on the first outing; but might consider providing bell, lights and carrier racks as standard equipment. You could hardly buy a car without their automotive equivalents.
One piece of good news: the RAC intends to supply the bikes through cycle shops. To order one, phone the RAC and they arrange for you to pick it up at a local shop where, importantly, the crucial set-up job will have been done. And a piece of bad news, they won't be running a call-out service for bikes. You'll have to repair your own punctures, as did I.
The RAC bike costs pounds 649. For more details call 01304 204256
Things got off to a bad start, for me and the Ferrari. It is the first bike I have ever ridden with clip-on pedals. Despite a couple of practice goes in the back garden at releasing the special shoes from the pedals - swivel your ankle and out the shoe pops - when the pounds 4,500 carbon-fibre framed Ferrari and I gently cruised up to the first red light at a busy intersection, the predictable happened. I fell over. Finally, I got going again. I used to cycle around nearby Richmond Park a lot a few years ago, and was soon pumping around the outer ring road. A bike that weights only 19.5lbs, including wheels, is great but the bloke who actually supplies the motive power is even more important, and it wasn't long before the engine started to let down the rest of the act. Other cyclists, on machines worth about a tenth of the Ferrari, started to edge by. To accentuate my embarrassment, this Colnago C35 Ferrari came with appalling airbrushed paintwork, a pink saddle and yellow-and-red tyres. After the eight-mile Richmond Park lap, I gently rode home before discreetly putting the bike away in the dining room. The back shed would clearly have been too risky. That's another problem with mega-money bikes. Can you imagine chaining one to the railings?
The basic frame of Colnago C35 Ferrari costs pounds 2,468. Specified to the same level as the bike tested here, the price is about pounds 4,500. Call Pro Race on 01243 268314
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