I’m lucky (or unlucky, depending on how much you love to ride) enough to have a short bike commute. Even living across the bay in Oakland, I go a scant 2.5 miles: a mile and change to my bus stop, then another mile or so from the San Francisco bus terminal to the office. Neither portion has particularly hilly terrain, so my usual commuter is a single-speed. However, there are enough block-long gradual climbs that when the Novak arrived sporting a nice, shiny gearbox, I jumped at the chance to test it. The Novak is Swobo’s everything-for-everyone urban bike. Other models in Swobo’s line have 8 speeds and disc brakes, or one speed and no brakes, or 26-inch wheels for mountain bikers who want the agility they’re used to on the city streets. The Novak ($790) threads a line right through the middle of the roster: 700c wheels, riser bars for an upright posture, rack mounts for easy cargo and pannier options, a 3-speed internally geared Shimano Nexus hub for weatherproof gearing, and fenders to avoid skunk stripes and wet shoes. Like all of Swobo’s bikes, it’s made of vibration-damping steel — a must-have since the days of my Brooklyn-to-Manhattan commute, and all the topographical vagaries that came with it.
Not surprisingly, the cumulative effect of all that line-threading is that the Novak provides a perfectly middle-of-the-road experience. Ride position is comfortable, the steel handles Oakland’s haphazard paving with aplomb, and a full-coverage chainguard means no pant-rolling is necessary. At 25 pounds, it’s light enough to take up three flights stairs or lift onto a bus’ front rack. It might not have disc brakes, but the entry-level Tektro calipers do their job, even on semi-steep descents. Some caveats: Internal-gear hubs are great at shifting when not pedaling, but not even remotely great at shifting when under load. Downshifting on an incline is a no-go. Additionally, a three-speed hub means you’ve got a big spread between the gears, so it can be tough to find a steady groove. The Novak’s top gear was a touch too tall for all-day comfort on flats, but the next step down was so spinny that I only used it when accelerating from a stop, climbing, or battling a stiff headwind.
So I’d caution a test ride. But if that middle gear feels right, then you’ll know you’ve got an all-in-one ride that can handle run-of-the-mill climbs and descents without asking too much of your legs or lungs. – Peter Rubin, Senior Editor
Photo: Ariel Zambelich