Fully-equipped city bikes are fantastic tools for daily life. But they cost a pretty penny. Some of you are working with a tight budget, others are still feeling out this whole practical cycling thing, and others (including me) just don’t need all the bells and whistles.
Fortunately, there are there some excellent and highly affordable options.
We’re not talking the bottom-shelf stuff you find at big-box stores or all over those Amazon fake-review sites. Those are never a good deal in the long run.
And while there are plenty of good choices at local bike shops, we’re not talking about those major brands, either.
The best values right now are from a handful of direct-to-consumer brands that have emerged over the last five years or so.
Direct-to-consumer bike brands are kind of all over the map. However, Brooklyn Bicycle is one of the most popular and reputable of the bunch, and their Franklin model is a marvelous city bike.
After spending years and a kind of ridiculous amount of money buying, selling, testing, and living with so many city/commuter bikes I’ve lost count, I’ve had my Franklin the longest. It stayed around even as several other excellent bikes came and went. That’s quite a feat for the cheapest bike I’ve ever owned!
What’s more, I’m convinced it’s the best budget city bike for most of us. Not for everyone–and we’ll come back to that later–but for most.
For those who prefer video, here’s the YouTube version, as well:
What’s so special about the Brooklyn Franklin?
Any decent bike around the $500-ish price point will have basically the same components. For instance, you’d expect a traditional-style city bike to have:
- An upright riding position that’s comfortable in normal clothing
- A steel or aluminum frame with clean welds and a decent paint job
- A steel fork (to reduce vibration)
- Ideally, fenders and a rack included
- An entry-level Shimano drivetrain, usually Tourney or Altus, with 7 or 8 speeds (unless it’s a single-speed, of course)
- Generic hubs, bottom bracket, and headset, all sealed for weather resistance
The Franklin has all the above, and we’ll take a closer look in a bit.
But what sets it apart from several other similarly-priced options is the outstanding geometry, which creates a ride quality that’s impressive at any price. The parts are totally adequate if not fancy, but it really is the frame design that puts it head and shoulders above just about every close alternative.
The ordering process
Brooklyn sells through what they term a buy and ride program. That means they’ll ship the bike to a local dealer who then assembles it professionally and holds it for you to pick up. Importantly, there is no added cost for any of this. As of writing, shipping and assembly are free.
Obviously, that saves you the minor hassle of assembling the bike out of the box. More importantly, it ensures that an expert will do critical setup tasks like tensioning and truing the wheels. That’s essential for their durability, yet not something most new riders would think of, let alone be comfortable doing themselves.
I was lucky enough that my local bike shop had one in stock. They don’t usually carry them, so it was a bit of a fluke, but some of you may have that option.
All in all, very few Brooklyn dealers keep any stock. Most customers will not have a chance to try one first. Understandably, that’s a major drawback. On the other hand, the designs are universal and simple enough that it’s almost impossible to go wrong assuming you’re buying the bike for its intended purposes.
Sizing is straightforward, but limited, and more on that below. I can’t speak to their customer service personally, but reading around, the consensus seems to be that they’re responsive and helpful.
This is only speculation, but I bet brands like Brooklyn prefer the ship upon order model versus dealer distribution because they’re a little too niche for the huge volumes that mainstream shops require. This sort of classic city bike is deliberately not trendy, which I think is fantastic. That just makes it hard to sell in the volumes that someone like Trek or Giant, or even Marin or Kona, would look for.
Let’s get one thing clear: step-through frames are not just for women! They’re obviously helpful in a skirt or dress, but they’re for anybody.
For one thing, when you have a large load or even a child on the rear rack, it’s nice to step right through the frame rather than trying to swing a leg over. No matter your clothing or your sex, nobody wants to kick their child or send their groceries flying.
Additionally, I have a somewhat short inseam relative to my height. By the time I find a bike long enough for proper riding position, I end up with very little clearance to stand over the top tube. When I have to dismount unexpectedly–which is not uncommon in urban riding–then I’d rather not worry about that.
Fortunately, most manufacturers are finally starting to label this style as “step-through” or “low-step,” which is more accurate and useful anyhow.
Anyhow, this frame is made of steel, which is a standard (and desirable) material for city bikes in general. It has a more resilient, springy quality than aluminum, so all else being equal, you’ll get a slightly smoother and more forgiving ride. To be clear, it’s not like a steel frame doubles as a shock absorber. But if you ride enough steel frame of decent quality, you’ll start to notice a subtle smoothness that is oddly lacking in most aluminum bikes.
The welds are clean and smooth throughout. They’re Chinese- and Taiwanese-made bikes, which is almost universal these days, but everything points to Brooklyn using high-quality factories with stringent standards.
Quick note on the Franklin vs. Willow
The Brooklyn Willow is essentially the same bike as the Franklin but with a double-butted 4130 chromoly frame. That may save a fraction of a pound and perhaps feel even smoother, although I haven’t ridden one to compare.
The Willow is only $100 more, and it includes a rack which you’ll probably need anyway, so I’d just as soon go for the Willow as the Franklin if budget isn’t painfully tight. They’re otherwise the same thing, so everything else in this review will apply to both of them equally.
Appealing, classic style with attention to detail where it counts
Most of the Brooklyn line is on the timeless and low-key side of aesthetics. The Franklin epitomizes that.
If you like the sporty, quasi-Formula 1 look of carbon fiber and disc brakes and wind tunnel-approved aerodynamics, then you’re barking up the wrong tree with Brooklyn. (And realistically, you’re probably not reading this review!)
Brooklyn wisely included matching fenders, a chainguard, and a kickstand right out of the box, so the most you’ll need to add is an inexpensive rack.
I’d like for the front fender to cover the wheel more fully to block spray. I added a DIY mud flap from some vinyl sheeting, but a longer fender would have been nice. That’s a minor quibble, though, and easily addressed.
As for a rack, I suggest buying the one from Brooklyn for about $40. The positions and angles of rack mounts vary between bikes, so getting something from the manufacturer just makes installation quicker. But any universal rear rack should work fine; I’ve used this Planet Bike Eco rack (Amazon link) for years without a problem.
(You’ll also want to buy lights, of course, if you don’t already have some on hand. I recommend this Cygolite set from REI, but there are dozens of good alternatives.)
Brooklyn Franklin specs (and why they matter)
The smaller size uses 26″ wheels whereas the larger, which I’m reviewing, uses 700c a.k.a. 29″. Theoretically, the larger wheels are just a bit smoother on rough ground, but the advantage of smaller wheels on the smaller frame size is that everything remains proportional. The geometry isn’t distorted to cram large wheels into a small frame. That’s important because it means both sizes have the same phenomenal ride quality (much more on that in a bit).
Both sizes have 35mm-wide tires, which is a great width for all-around city use. You’d need knobby tires for mud or loose dirt, but otherwise the basic Kenda Kwest tires have worked fine. (I suspect tires change between production runs, but they’ll inevitably be similar.)
The rims are double-walled aluminum with 32 spokes front and rear. That’s a good, durable spec for utilitarian bikes in general. As expected, mine have held up well despite hitting more potholes than I’d like. Just make sure to keep them true, which a YouTube tutorial or your local bike shop can help with.
One of my favorite features is the quill stem. Aesthetically it’s a bit retro, which suits the bike overall, but it’s also extremely practical. Unlike with modern threadless stems, you have a big range of height adjustment, and actually making the adjustment takes about 30 seconds (once you get the saddle height right).
There’s also a choice between a 7-speed derailleur version and a 3-speed internally-geared hub version at exactly the same price. I recommend the internally-geared hub to minimize maintenance unless you live in a hilly area, in which case the 7-speed will save you some pain on climbs.
(That said, mine own Franklin is the discontinued single-speed version, and I’ve ridden it frequently on hilly terrain for years. It’s a matter of preference–of simplicity versus comfort–so check out these tips if you’re thinking about doing the same.)
The brakes are dual-pivot Tektro calipers with Tektro levers. Dual-pivot brakes are the same U-shaped design that most road bikes use; they have great modulation when properly adjusted, meaning they’re easy to use delicately without an abrupt on/off feel. The disadvantage is that the extra-long brake arms (require to fit around the Franklin’s relatively wide tires plus fenders) can feel a little weak and mushy. V-brakes would have solved that problem, but they don’t modulate as nicer. To be clear, braking power is adequate. I’ve never been unable to stop promptly. Just don’t expect the same “bite” you’d get from good, well-adjusted v-brakes or discs.
The saddle and grips are the standard vinyl-covered bits you’ll find on every budget bike. They’re not my favorites, frankly, so I replaced the saddle with a Brooks B67 (available here) and keep meaning to replace the grips with a pair of Ergon GC1 BioKork (available here).
Saddle and grip preferences are personal, so I can’t fault Brooklyn for going with generic options that keep the price down. After all, the Brooks + Ergon upgrade costs 1/3 the price of the whole bike, so it only makes sense for frequent and extended use.
What sealed the deal: thoughtful geometry & uniquely nice ride
Up top, I called the Franklin “marvelous” and not just “good.”
Well, it’s essentially a budget Rivendell. You’re probably not familiar with Rivendell Bicycle Works, but they’re a small and sort of cult brand that is known for rather expensive bikes that ride like a dream.
It turns out that Rivendell’s founder and bike designer, a guy named Grant Petersen who’s prominent in the industry, also collaborated on the design of the Franklin. So it bears a lot of his hallmarks, like extra-long chainstays, a tall head tube, a long effective top tube, and seat and head tube angles both around 70-71 degrees. The low bottom bracket also keeps the center of gravity low and stable, and makes it easier to put a foot down at a stop.
Having owned two actual Rivendells, I consider the Franklin something like 80% or 90% of the ride quality for 15%-25% of the price. Of course, at $500, Brooklyn doesn’t have the artisanal flair like beautiful lugged construction or detailed paint jobs. Now, I love those details and frankly don’t mind paying a lot for them.
But you can’t ride artisanal flair to the office, and I couldn’t find any significant, practical differences without really splitting hairs between the Franklin and a comparable Rivendell.
If that bike geometry jargon and Rivendell references are all Greek to you, no worries. The upshot is pretty simple: the Franklin avoids that lazy, heavy, plodding feel that comfort bikes and cruisers are prone to–almost like you’re trying to steer a boat down the street. But neither does it have the unforgiving twitchiness or harshness that plague more road bike-inspired designs, including a lot of hybrids.
Its feel and handling strike a happy medium. More than almost anything I’ve ridden, I simply cease to notice it as I ride. And for a thirty-something-pound contraption to melt away from your conscious mind is no small feat.
That sounds hopelessly abstract and esoteric. What I’m trying to get at is that it feels neutral in the best sense of the term. It gets out of your way and lets you enjoy the scenery or watch traffic or whatever it is you want to focus on. There’s no worrying about whether it will respond too much or too little to your input. Still rather abstract, I know, but if you ride the Franklin back-to-back with a standard road bike, you’ll see exactly what I mean.
One “big” issue: limited sizing for tall riders
The one insurmountable problem with the Franklin and other Brooklyn step-through models is that they just don’t get very big.
The small/medium is recommended for riders 4’11”-5’5″ and the large (my size) for 5’6″-6’5″.
Realistically, I believe a 6’5″ rider would feel extremely cramped. Of course, I’m just speculating, but based on my own fit at 5’10”, I’d place the upper limit on the large somewhere around 6’1″-6’2″.
It’s understandable that Brooklyn limited the sizing as they did. Riders above 6’2″ aren’t that numerous, and I doubt many are looking for step-through city bikes. Note that other Brooklyn models get significantly larger; they just don’t offer the step-through frame that’s so nice for utilitarian riding. I don’t believe the bigger diamond-frame models are quite as upright, either, but don’t quote me on that.
If you’re one of those tall folks who do want something like the Franklin/Willow, then you’ll probably need a longer seatpost and a longer, taller stem. Both are readily available for $30-$50 or so. Just note that you’ll need to remove the grips (perhaps destructively) to replace the stem, since the stem has a traditional single-bolt clamp rather than a removable face plate.
Bottom line: will the Brooklyn Franklin work for you?
If you want a fairly classic city/commuter/all-around bike for paved terrain and an occasional gravel road, then for my money, the Brooklyn Franklin and Willow can’t be beat.
It’s a great “cheap” city bike, to be sure, but I have to emphasize that I’ve kept it despite owning far more expensive bikes. It really is that good.
Parts are well though-out, and rather boring in the best possible way. There is nothing novel, proprietary, or otherwise hard to work on. It’s easy to upgrade the saddle and grips to your liking, at which point I can’t find anything to dislike.
Particularly tall riders, or those look for a more modern or sporty design, may want to look elsewhere.
But for the rest of us, I cannot think of a better value in a classic city bike–let alone one that rides smoothly and predictably, but is agile and responsive enough to be downright fun in its own right.
That rare combination has made me a raving fan. I’m delighted that Brooklyn has made it available at a great price.
Availability tends to be limited, but check their website here.