It feels like riding my first bicycle for the first time all over again, without the training wheels but with all the simplicity and ease of use. With its coaster brakes, a chain guard and three-speed gears that shift themselves, the Trek Lime is one of three Shimano Coasting bikes introduced this year in an effort to bring more adults to cycling.
"This coasting thing is something I've taken on," says Williamson Bicycle Works proprietor Del Henning over coffee at Electric Earth. The bike market had been flat around the turn of the century, he explains. One theory held that a segment of the population was turned off by all the technical advances of recent decades - the 27-gear drivetrains, the myriad of cables and accessories that have become commonplace on both road and off-road bikes.
Shimano, he says, "came to the conclusion that they wanted to bring more people into bicycling who had the means but didn't want the complications." The company's solution was to simplify the bicycle - to return it to what Henning calls its "iconic form."
To achieve this, Shimano stripped the bicycle down to basics: two wheels, frame, front fork, handlebars, seat, pedals. It then installed a dynamo in the front hub that measures wheel revolutions and transmits the information to a computer chip that shifts the gears via the mechanical three-speed hub.
Instead of hand-operated brake levers, Shimano went retro with coaster brakes. To stop, riders kick back on the pedals, opposite the usual forward rotation.
"They're targeting mature people and young professionals," observes Henning, adding that there are millions of non-bikers out there who might bike if they found out it was easy to ride.
Shimano took its Coasting configuration to bike companies in late 2005. Giant, Raleigh and Trek were the first three to jump on the concept. Giant this year introduced two models, the Suede and the Suede DX. Raleigh calls its first model the Raleigh Coasting bicycle. Trek's models are the Lime and the Lime Lite.
Each model presents a slight variation on the Shimano prototype. What does not vary is each bike's simplicity. There are no distracting gear or brake cables. And if these are not high-performance road racing or touring bikes, or muscular off-road bikes, that's because they're built for comfort and ease of use.
"The bicycle's so simple to begin with," Henning says. "Why make it complicated?"
Five minutes into test-riding the Trek Lime, the appeal of Shimano Coasting is obvious. All you do is strap on your helmet, get on the bike and start pedaling.
Because the gears shift themselves and you brake with your feet, all your hands have to do is steer. As a result, there is less to think about than there is while operating other bikes. Less time spent thinking leaves more time for...well, for coasting - riding along at a casual pace.
Henning likens the Shimano Coasting esthetic to "the future that never was." Shimano re-imagined retro in a futuristic form. "Supposedly, there are six other companies that have applied to come on board next year in 2008," he adds.
By simplifying the bicycle, "this Coasting thing," as Henning puts it, facilitates people's adoption of the bicycle as part of everyday life. Reducing the time investment in maintenance and upkeep could, he suggests, make the bicycle more habit-forming.
Henning notes that Shimano Coasting is emerging at a time when other manufacturers have been introducing similar retro-simplified bikes. He cites the Electra Amsterdam as one model that has proved popular among his customers.
In much the same way that the iPod's appeal was based on its simplicity and ease of use, he suggests, Shimano Coasting may find traction with young urbanites because "it's cool. I think it's something that, if it catches, will be ubiquitous."