PUBLIC enters the road bike market with its retro-styled R16

PUBLIC R16 in greenNOTE: This article refers to the first edition of the R16. PUBLIC has since released a greatly revised model which addresses many of the concerns raised in the comments below, while dropping the price point by $200. I’ll review the new bike in a separate article, but you can review its spec on the PUBLIC website. I’d also like to acknowledge the graceful communication of PUBLIC founder Rob Forbes, who reached out shortly after the article’s publication. His team has been incredibly responsive, and I’m excited to see PUBLIC growing as a company.

San Francisco’s PUBLIC Bikes — a company which has carved out its place in a crowded industry by producing stylish interpretations of European-inspired city bicycles — is stepping out with its first drop bar road bike.

The PUBLIC R16 is certainly intended to conjure memories of English club racers. It even comes in British racing green, just in case you miss the point.

A cityfied road bike

What sets the R16 apart from most of the road bikes sold in the US is a set of steel fenders, touring-style bar end shifters, and a proper kickstand. With the addition of a rack and panniers, the R16 is probably best suited for recreational riding, light errands, or fast commuting. A jack-of-all-trades, more performance-oriented than its upright, fat-tired siblings.

It comes with a 4130 chromoly steel frameset, 2 x 8 drivetrain, retro-styled toe clips, Dia-Compe brake levers, a beautiful quill stem, painted-to-match rims, and a Brooks-inspired saddle with brass rivets. Paired with PUBLIC’s signature stripes and contrasting cables housings, it’s a looker.

It’s also a bit spendy, for what you’re getting. The R16 is a decent buy at its introductory price of $999, but will retail just south of $1200. This makes some of the model’s no-name, cost-cutting component choices look cheesy: Rims, hubs, seatpost, stem, brake calipers, shift levers, and headset. The R16 shifts gears with Shimano’s serviceable, but soon-to-be-discontinued 2300 series derailleurs, and turns with a budget FSA crankset.

The competition

This introductory level kit probably works just fine. But it doesn’t compare well to similar bikes in the same price category. Take the Surly Pacer, for instance. No fenders or kickstand, but you’ll get better-finished Shimano Tiagra derailleurs with a 2 x 10 drivetrain and STI shifters, nicer tires, and Tektro brakes.

Surly Pacer & Raleigh Clubman

Perhaps a more appropriate comparison is the modern descendent of the bike PUBLIC is attempting to emulate: The Raleigh Clubman. While today’s Clubman no longer rolls off an English production line, it bears a strong resemblance to its storied ancestors. For the same price as the R16, you get a full Tiagra road group (including crankset and hubs), painted-to-match fenders, Weinmann rims — and a real Brooks Swift saddle, not PUBLIC’s riveted look-alike [postscript: the Clubman has been extensively redesigned for the 2015 model year, and is no longer directly comparable to PUBLIC's R16].

PUBLIC: A city bike company

One way PUBLIC could sidestep questions about its current component selection might be to offer the R16 with a Nexus internal gear hub. This would win some vintage cred, align the R16 with the best of PUBLIC’s existing models, and optimize the R16 as a drop bar city bike — which is how most customers will probably use it. Until then, the Raleigh Clubman is the obvious standout in its category, a stronger buy than the PUBLIC R16.

But PUBLIC’s new road machine still pushes all my happy buttons, and it shows that the design team in San Francisco is willing to take risks. I’m a big fan of Public. They’re one of the first companies I mention when people ask me to recommend a modern city bike. Of course, what constitutes a “city bike” is a bit of an open question these days, and I’m glad to see Public adding to the conversation.