Today we're bringing you a first look with a difference – for this is the Elephant bike, and it’s one of 5,000 near identical ex-Royal Mail bicycles that will be refurbished and sold on by Staffordshire based charity the Krizevac Project. Currently on sale for just £250, it not only represents excellent value for money but it’ll actually make a difference to the lives of less bike-fortunate people.
You can read more about the Elephant bike and its heart-warming story in our original article here, but right now we wanted to give those who are thinking of investing in one a better idea of exactly what to expect – and what better way to do so than by getting hold of one and taking it for a quick spin?
First, here’s a little background. Once a familiar sight in the UK, these bikes were produced by England’s longest established bicycle manufacturer Pashley, and their dependable performance plus the pedal power of the posties ensured the people of the UK got their post on time… at times. Originally known as the Mailstar, the model ran from 2001, with a similar version of the bike still being sold by Pashley under the Pronto model name.
One person's trash is another's treasure
Back in 2010, Royal Mail announced its sad decision to scrap bicycles for safety reasons, and now, for Royal Mail at least, the two-wheeled postie has gone the way of the dodo. Every cloud has a silver lining though, and thanks to the people behind Elephant bike many of these bikes will continue their good work on another continent. That’s because for every person who stumps up for an Elephant bike, the people at the charity will ship one to Malawi, Africa, where it’ll make a real difference to the lives of locals – with proceeds also being diverted to a children's charity in the African nation.
An original Royal Mail 'Mailstar' bike as produced by Pashley
Our Elephant bike is #4,912 of the run of 5,000; its frame is the larger of two sizes and comes fully kitted with the optional front parcel tray and basket (together a £30 option). Its low, step-through frame wears no battle scars or rust thanks to a beige respray, (one of four colour options available from Elephant bike). And no, before you ask, you can’t have one in the original Royal Mail red…
For every Elephant bike sold, one will go to Malawi, Africa, where it can change lives
In an age of carbon frames, internal cable routing and hydraulic disc brakes, the Pashley is delightfully simple. Quick and easy cable tension adjustment is the difference between the Sturmey Archer 3 speed transmission working beautifully and misbehaving, and the same can be said for the drum brakes at the axis of each wheel.
Another important part of this bike is its dependability – these rugged workhorses were designed to require minimal maintenance. Keep the chain lubed and air in the tough Schwalbe tyres and just get on with it.
So, what’s it like to ride?
With the quick-release seat post of the Elephant bike adjusted as necessary, the backswept riser bars placed me in a traditional sit-up-and-beg position. Having such a straight back made a refreshing change, and I felt unusually aware of my surroundings.
I’ll let you know at this stage that you shouldn’t go getting one of these to regularly ride hilly routes – not unless you want to put in some serious training anyway. The 23kg (51lb) heft of the steel Pashley had our scales as close as they've ever been to their weight limit, and of course that heft is apparent as soon as you point the bike upwards. If Postman Pat hadn't been so dependent on his van then he’d have some serious calves and quads – that’s for sure.
The optional front carrier and basket adds further charm, and with a capacity of 20kg (44lbs) it's properly useful, too
On flatter ground, I found the Elephant bike does a remarkable job of hiding its chubbiness, and the well-chosen gear ratios mean that progress can be brisk. Of course, that’s not what the Elephant bike is about; after all, here is a machine that can carry nearly twice its own weight in cargo – yep, both the front and rear racks are good for hauling 20kg (44lbs) each, giving you some idea of how useful the rides being sent to Malawi stand to be.
The big volume 1.75in Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres spread a wide footprint and damped all but the most corrugated of urban terrain. The way that the Elephant bike made me maintain a straight back and its surefooted feel actually reminded me of a moped – yet unlike a moped you there’s a light feeling to the steering regardless of speed.
I found the Sturmey Archer drums couldn’t match the initial bite of most brakes today, but grip the chunky levers with intent and you’ll stop in a surprisingly short distance. Drums are of course sealed from the elements, so there’s consistent braking performance whatever the weather, too.
Similarly, full length alloy mudguards will make wet-weather riding a more pleasant experience, and a mount at the fork means a front light can be attached where it won’t get obstructed by any loads above the front wheel. Once at your destination, the kickstand of the Elephant bike can be deployed, and it’ll stand proud on its own two legs.
So, it turns out that pretending to be a postie is pretty fun and, provided you’re not in too hilly an area, then this is actually a well-sorted bike. A similar model would still cost well over £600 from Pashley, and here you get a lovingly restored example – and a slice of British history – for a fraction of that. You'll also be making the world a better place, and if that's not £250 well spent then we don't know what is.