It may seem like we’ve entered a whole new world, but it’s not all dystopian. In fact, much of what’s happening in Portland is very promising. There’s now an odd and ill-conceived bike tax for Oregon residents, the proceeds of which will go to bike infrastructure, but on a much bigger scale the City of Portland is finally awash in cash for major and minor bikeway improvements, from bridges over interstates to separated bike lanes to traffic-calming diverters on Portland neighborhood greenways.
Together all these improvements should inspire more people to ride, confident in the newfound safety we’re all going to feel because we won’t have to share the road so much with cars anymore. This should create a virtuous cycle, where growing numbers of riders make it safer and safer for others to gain confidence and join in.
To these new commuters, we say, welcome to riding a bike!
While any old bike will do, if you’re thinking of taking advantage of new and better commuter bike technologies, you’ve come to the right place. We recently picked up two new models that we think are pretty perfect for pedaling around Portland: the Kona Dr. Dew 650B ($999) and the Marin Nicasio RC 650B ($870).
Now that we’re in 2019 here is the link to the new 2019 Kona Dr. Dew.
I set both bikes up with similar commuting accessories, then put each one to the test for a week on my daily commute to and from Joe Bike, choosing paved roads, paved and unpaved trails, some dirt and gravel, and even a golf course.
The two bikes use different shifting systems to achieve the same principal: simplified, one-handed shifting, which not only makes things easier but reduces maintenance because it eliminates parts and cables. For both bikes, that means no front derailleur to adjust, no second shifter cable to tighten, and no double or triple chainring to eventually wear out. In bike industry parlance, this is called 1x (pronounced “one by”) drivetrain. It just means there’s only one chainring in your crank and anywhere from 1 to 11 or 12 gears at your back wheel.
The Dr. Dew uses SRAM’s wide-range NX 1×11 (11-speed) group, whereas the Nicasio uses Shimano’s bombproof Nexus 8 (8-speed) with a crisp thumb shifter. Both systems are tough, rugged, smooth, precise, and designed to be able to shift while pedaling under load.
I rate both of these component choices very highly for a serious commuter bike, but there are significant differences: the SRAM system uses a conventional derailleur and cassette (that’s the stack of gears or cogs on the back wheel). These systems are lightweight and work very well, but they do require maintenance such as chain cleaning/oiling and derailleur/cable adjustment from time to time. The Shimano system, on the other hand, encases all the gears in the rear hub itself, all of it weather-protected in an aluminum case. Maintenance is as close to nothing as you can get (a low-cost annual service on the hub is all that’s needed once the hub is broken in), and the hub tends to be clean to the touch since there is little to no grease or gunk on it. Only the chain and a single cog are exposed. The downside: the hub adds about 2 additional lbs to the bike and has a bit less range than the 1×11 SRAM, though the range is adequate for Portland and includes a first gear that’s good for climbing.
Brakes: extremely good hydraulic disc brakes are now easy to get on relatively affordable commuter bikes like these. (By the way, Joe Bike is the only non-mountainbike shop in town that carries nothing but disc-brake bikes.) I was super impressed to find the same Shimano M447 hydraulic brakes on both of these bikes as on my much more expensive Kona mountain bike. They’re great, reliable brakes with outstanding stopping power in wet or dry conditions as well as fantastic modulation. And these days hydraulic disc brakes require very little maintenance that’s rarely needed. The ability to harness the power of a mountain bike brake makes the Dr. Dew and the Nicasio both well equipped to make a four-letter stop in the city at any moment.
Oh, and in bike industry parlance, a four-letter stop is any stop that coincides with the utterance of a four-letter word.
Also impressively, both the Nicasio and the Dr. Dew come complete with fenders: metal ones for the Nicasio and plastic for the Dr. Dew. I chose to swap out the plastic fenders for the new Portland Design Works 650Beast Full Metal Fenders to complete the sleek matte black look of the Dr. Dew.
Another obvious similarity between these two bikes is that both feature 650b wheels, which fall in between 26″ and 700c wheels in diameter. 650b is becoming popular lately because they work so well with wider tires, which, in turn, are all the rage these days because commuting (or gravel grinding) on traditionally skinny road tires is just not the best idea. Wider tires give you greater comfort; a bigger contact patch, which means greater surface area on which to brake, corner, and absorb shocks; and the ability to ride on a wide variety of paved and unpaved surfaces. In short, the smaller 650b wheel diameter, plus wider, high-volume 650b tires, gives you all these advantages without adversely affecting the ride characteristics of the bike as a whole. And no, riding wider, plusher tires will not slow you down nearly as much as you might think. In fact, the rougher the riding surface is, the speedier you’ll tend to be on wider tires than skinny. And you’ll be much more comfortable. Did we forget to mention railroad tracks? We can’t promise that the WTB Horizon 650b x 47mm tires on both bikes will be completely impervious to railroad tracks at all crossings, but they’re much, much safer than skinny tires.
Both the Nicasio and the Dr. Dew come with those Horizons. However, the Dr. Dew’s wheels come pre-taped for easy tubeless setup. If you guessed that going tubeless is a good thing, and a recent arrival in the commute bike world, you’re right. With tubeless tires, a liquid sealant rolls around the inside of the tire, and within a few seconds of a puncture, the sealant rushes in to plug the hole. This won’t work for bigger holes or gashes, but it’s still super useful for day-to-day commuting and, especially, mountain biking or dirt riding on thorny trails. Going tubeless also eliminates the possibility of pinch flats, which are a common kind of flat when your tubed tires aren’t inflated enough.
The wide, cushy tubeless tires floated the lightweight aluminum Dr. Dew frame over pavement and gravel. I tried running them as low as 18 psi, although that did slow me down. Eventually I settled on 35 psi for the tubeless Dr. Dew tires and 55 psi for the not-tubeless Nicasio tires. Traction and contact-patch size are still excellent at that pressure.
Another key difference is frame material: Dr Dew is aluminum, Nicasio steel. Although aluminum bikes these days are a lot smoother-feeling than in the past, there’s something about the combination of liveliness and solidity that makes steel the favored material for most of Joe Bike’s staff. Steel is also more durable and can often be repaired.
I installed a Wald 137 basket on both bikes to schlep my belongings around town. In terms of handling, the Nicasio seemed born to carry a basket. I left the basket on it and swapped out the Nicasio’s plastic pedals for some lightweight and fun MKS Lambda touring pedals. Remember that any part of the bike your body touches–pedals, grips, saddle–will have an inordinate effect on your comfort. You can feel cheap pedals from the balls of your feet on up, so we encourage riders to consider getting nicer pedals.
Bikes like Kona’s Dr. Dew 650B and the Marin Nicasio RC 650B are exciting to me because the represent the next generation of cycling: a future where people ride not only because it’s fun, but because it’s easy, safe, healthy, social, and economical. Both of these bikes are serious, elegant, capable machines of high quality that can bring their riders lifetimes of joy.
So which bike wins in this comparison? It depends.
Weight: Dr Dew (aluminum frame, lighter drivetrain)
Tubeless compatibility: Dr Dew
Gear range: Dr Dew
Comfort: Nicasio’s steel frame provides a bit more comfort and shock absorption
Maintenance: Nicasio’s gearing is virtually maintenance-free and weatherproof
Quality/durability: The components are of essentially equal quality, but the Nicasio’s steel frame can take more of a beating than the Dr Dew’s aluminum frame. And the Nicasio’s Nexus hub will probably outlast all of us. The Nicasio’s color-matched metal fenders seem nicer than the Dr Dew’s plastic fenders.
Handling: Both bikes offer a sprightly, spirited, smooth and stable ride, but Nicasio felt a bit more natural with weight in the basket. On the other hand, it lagged a bit in hill climbing. Also, the Dr Dew’s riding position is slightly more aggressive whereas the Nicasio’s handlebars encourage a more upright and therefore less aggressive position. That’s totally a matter of personal preference.