The US$699 Swobo Novak is an ugly duckling of a commuter that turns out to be a beautiful swan round town. It may have a look that only a mother can love, but it's a terrifically practical rig for the streets and bike paths, apparent after a few pedal strokes.
Ride & handling: get-the-job-done steadiness
The Novak rolls over everything in its path, thanks in part to its 700C wheels and longer fork rake. Handling is steady and predictable, which is what you want in traffic.
The riding position initially feels a bit stretched, thanks to the relatively long top tube (59cm on our 60cm test bike). When you get used to it, you realise that it's a sensible compromise between fighting the breeze in a totally upright position and a head-down, bum-up road-racing stance.
Climbing-wise, the Novak is steady, quick and stiff. Likewise, the sturdy chromoly steel tubing helps the bike stay straight and reliable in the turns, eliminating that noodley feeling that one feels with steel tubing that’s too light.
The smart spec of the 3-speed internal means there’s always a gear for the terrain, but not for ultra steep stuff. Simplicity is key with typical flat-terrain urban riding, so the moderate gearing does well in most situations.
The two-fingered brake levers, taken from the usual mountain or BMX bike spec, work more than nicely with the Tektro longreach caliper brakes, designed to grab the rim evenly, strongly, and long enough to handle optional mudguards and the stock 700x28c Vittoria Randonneur tyres, which have puncture-resistant tread and a reflective ring for night-time visibility.
Frame: function over flash
The Novak's double-butted chromoly steel tubing is heavier than the aluminium more commonly found on bikes of this price, but steel's abuse-tolerance is worth the extra grams.
The frame has useful fittings for mudguards, chainguard and racks. The rear-facing horizontal rear dropouts work well for adjusting the chain tension, and the integrated adjusters are a nice touch.
There are almost no logos on the understated matt silver frame, except for the cool head and top tube name plates. Swobo bike sportif/designer Sky Yaeger knows her customers well, and she provides an empty canvas, ripe for stickering, electrical tape, or someone else’s bicycle graffiti dream.
Equipment: SRAM's I-Motion three-speed hub provides core
In equipping the Novak, Swobo began with the SRAM I-Motion internal three-speed rear hub, a simple modern throwback to the Sturmey-Archer design that’s relatively bomb-proof and doesn’t need much, if any, maintenance. This is good for these wanting repeat performance with minimal preventative maintenance. A simple twist of the throttle-like shifter and click, click, click – you’re there.
From a distance, the Novak doesn't offer any sex appeal, But upon closer inspection, the commuter geek will dig the integrated seat post tail light, front locking quick-release hub skewer, and custom bottle opener under the seat.
What looks like a droll me-too commuter bike actually performs like some of the lighter steel bikes I’ve ridden over the years. Much of this has to do with the forgiving feel of steel, but most of it comes down to a long wheelbase and relaxed head and seat angles, which positions your body over the wheels in a more comfortable position. The riser bars are a nice touch, and the ability to add baskets front and rear is a major plus for folks looking to leave the car (and their gas card) at home. All told, the Swobo Novak is a blessing in disguise, and despite the higher price, worth every penny.