Charge's Plug is a straightforward, super-clean fixie that's tough enough for the mean streets of rural Somerset and the inner city
You've only got to have a look at the streets of London - or any other British city - to see that there's been something of a renaissance in the world of fixed and singlespeed bikes. Forget derailleurs, and you can say goodbye to their finickiness - a one-speed bike has even less to go wrong.
And to cater for this surge in interest there's no shortage of companies - mainstream and niche - prepared to flog you a suitable machine. Surly offer their chromoly Steamroller, On-One the rudely monickered Pompino (also 4130 steel) and London's Condor Cycles the classy looking Dedacciai-tubed Pista. Even big boys like Specialized have joined the fray with their Langster, which comes in at the same price as Charge's bizarrely named Plug bike.
So who are Charge, then? And, more importantly, is their first foray into the fixed/singlespeed market any good? Well, they're based in the former mining town of Radstock, not very far from Cycling Plus's Bath home, and their bikes are tested 'in the ghetto', as a sticker proudly proclaims. In this case, though, the ghetto is Somerset's rural Nunney, about as un-ghetto-like a location you could ever imagine.
As for the bike, well, this retro-styled all-steel machine's a bit of a minimalist treat.
They really don't come much more basic than this. There's no sloping top-tube, no fannying about with double or triple butting for Charge, no aluminium, and carbon fibre's but a dream. This is steel, plain and simple. The neat, navy blue finish covers a TIG-welded, Tange plain gauge singlespeed frame - the sort you might more normally associate with a mountain bike on the cheaper side of the fence - which is paired with Charge's Tange Whisk fork.
The result isn't light, especially considering the lack of any gears or finishing kit, but this isn't a Sunday best bike - this is built for tough urban environments, and as such the uncompromising material is bang on for the job. And if anybody tells you that a steel frame is inevitably going to result in a flexible frame - especially given the comparatively narrow seat-tube - then they haven't ridden this.
You may have noticed the frame's clean lines, due in part to the absence of any braze-ons like bottle mounts. "The idea is that it's as clean as possible," Charge's Nick Larsen tells us. "That's why it doesn't have mudguard eyelets or rack mounts, and has our custom designed removable stainless steel cable guides, for when riding fixed." The other two bikes in Charge's 'Street Bike' range - the Tap and the Mixer - are much more geared for the practical commuter market.
The bottom bracket height is a little higher than usual for a bike being ridden on the road, though in practice you don't notice this. And if you fancy fitting fatter tyres than the 28mm ones it comes with, the generous stays will allow you up to a hefty 43mm.
Er, to put it bluntly, there's not much, but what there is is thoughtfully chosen and stylish. For a new marque, Charge are, somewhat sensibly, well into their branding, and even the Spoon saddle boasts the company logo. It's comfortable too, and perfectly complements the bar tape on the comfy, forward-facing bull-horn bars. Not everyone's going to want a pair of brakes on a bike with a fixed option, but aside from two brakes being a legal necessity in the UK if you're riding it with a freewheel, these work very well. I've become a big fan of inline brake levers (I've recently had them fitted on my tourer) and you're going to want some decent, controlled stopping power in this bike's natural environment; these provide it.
Seatpost, bars and headset are all merely functional rather than glamorous, while Sugino, almost inevitably, provide the chainring - in this case a 42-tooth RD2 Messenger, making for a gear of about 69 inches. This is more than adequate for the flat, but it's going to require some pretty serious effort up anything more than a gentle slope. To complete the back-to-basics set-up, there's a pair of suitably old-school flat pedals.
Formula provide both front and rear hubs, and affirming the Plug's minimalist chic there's not a quick release in sight - even for the front where it would at least be possible. Both are cup and cone designs and have de rigueur large flanges. These look good and contribute to a strong set of wheels.
Rims are Alex DM18s with machined sidewalls. These are an ideal match for the frame, with an emphasis on strength and durability over glamour. The tyres are 28mm Kendas, which feel on the sluggish side, though again if you're careering through glass-covered and pothole-strewn city streets these are probably a decent choice. Both Paul Vincent, who also rode the Plug, and I would probably change tyres, maybe for 28mm Conti Ultra Gator Skins, City Contacts or Schwalbe's Nimbus Armadillos.
The ride is where I differed most with one of our testers, Paul, though we both agreed this beast is no lightweight. Yes, the tyres aren't quick over the tarmac and the frame's hefty, but while it's not a particularly fast bike, it's no slouch in the handling stakes either. I found that it came into its own zinging through the streets; it's fun to ride, tough as old boots and you feel it could shrug off just about anything you could throw at it.
Paul, with greater experience of riding super skinny race bikes, found it ponderous. Coming from more of a touring and commuting background - and being used to riding much heavier machines - I found it anything but. All right, so it's not going to be as nippy as an aluminium-framed, carbon-forked fixie, but thanks to its ultra stiff, near-indestructible frame, the handling's very true, and it'll give you the confidence to squeeze your way through tight spaces in traffic and to quickly steer around the sort of detritus that's unfortunately so common on British streets.
Retro chic? Definitely. But the Plug's ultra-minimalist, stylishly simple frame combines with well-specced kit for an incredibly pleasing ride. It's also elegant enough to turn the heads of cyclists and non-cyclists alike. It's no lightweight - far from it - but the Plug's likely to prove a tough beast prowling the city streets. And if you don't feel you can take any more fixed-wheel masochism, the flip-flop hub allows you to easily convert to a less-disciplined singlespeed mode.