Torker Graduate Commuter Bike Review
In the quest to create the most maintenance-free commuter bike on the market, Torker has taken it upon themselves to try to broaden our horizons a bit with their brand new Graduate, available for 2010 for about $500. On quick glance, the bike appears to be a simple, no frills urban commuter—something that won’t stand out when locked to a parking meter. No derailleurs, no suspension, no visible brakes? Even the standard paint is gray with minimalist decals and black components. The overall look is basically what comes to mind when someone says “urban commuter.” It’s an upright bike whose clean lines and sloping geometry looks fast and spry enough to avoid the surprise pothole, yet tough enough to withstand one. Actually riding the bike lives up to the first impression where the balance between speed and sturdiness succeeds without compromising too much of either.
On closer inspection, there are some exciting things going on. Torker has hooked up the bike with beautiful alloy high-flange Sturmey Archer 5-speed internally geared hubs with drum brakes actuated by Avid Speed Dial levers. The All Rounder bars are a bit wide for my tastes, but do help put your body in a comfortable riding position that is still a bit aggressive. The standard fenders are a great addition that may help steer some undecided buyers into the saddle knowing that they won’t have to add them later. Also, the stock tires are a sturdy 32mm Tioga Gritty Slicker that give you the option to take this directly from the road to some light trails. Stripped down to the basics, the bike looks and rides what you’d expect and want from a versatile urban commuter. When compared to the current crop of single speed and fixed gear commuters, its 29.5 lbs is on the heavy side, but not so bad that it would turn a few flights of stairs into a chore. Compared to other multispeed bikes with fenders and city tires at the same price point, the Graduate is only marginally heavier, primarily due to the drum brakes.
The internal gearing worked as it should—fast and reliable, although I had to keep reminding myself that it helps to stop pedaling for a smoother shift. The internal gears allow you to shift even while waiting at a traffic light. This did come in handy several times after coming to a stop at the bottom of a large hill, and forgetting to shift to a climbing gear. The internal gear/grip shift combo is fairly sensitive, so slight bump would often accidentally shift to higher gear, usually at inopportune moments like during a climb or from a stop, when you are using your handlebars to provide leverage.
It was slightly surprising that the 5-speed didn’t cover a broader range of gears. The direct drive 3rd gear and the 42×16 gear ratio added up to about 71 gear inches, with 1st gear coming in at 45 gear inches and 5th gear at 113 inches. I found myself wishing that the lowest gear was slightly easier and the highest gear slightly harder, but I’m also riding up and down the legendary hills of Pittsburgh. A broader range would also make the steps between gears much more pronounced. I found myself shifting between two fairly similar gears pretty frequently, in an attempt to find that perfect cadence. Had the steps been larger, I probably would have settled on a gear much quicker. With the lack of a serious climbing gear in mind, I probably wouldn’t choose this bike to explore Western Pennsylvania’s rural roads, but reserve it for rides on predictable terrain where I know what hills I’ll be challenged with.
The drum brakes were a pleasant surprise. I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical of them at first, old habits do die hard, but that was quickly washed aside once I tried them out. The drums respond really well, providing for smoother and more predictable braking than most rim brakes, although not being able to lock the wheel to a skid was a bit strange to get used to. The idea with the drums is that, aside from some cable work now and again, you won’t have to tend to them until you need to replace the wheels. One of the downsides is that when you do need to replace the wheels, a mechanic that knows how to service them may be hard to find, so make sure to pick your shop wisely when purchasing this. A shop that deals with tandems will surely know how to work on drum brakes and find the correct parts. Even a simple wheel change will require a little homework, but isn’t terribly hard. To take the wheels off, the rear requires removing a bolt and disconnecting the shifter cable, while both the front and the rear require disconnecting their respective brake cables, but that’s made easy with a simple quick release set-up. Also, when mounting the wheels, there are special washers to make sure that the wheel, and the levers that provide the braking to the drums, are lined up properly.
Knowing that water and snow don’t seriously affect or muck up the drum brakes or internal gearing makes the addition of the Graduate a practical bad-weather addition to your fleet. The relatively inexpensive $499.99 MSRP means that entry-level riders will be attracted to this bike as well. Proper sizing is important, and luckily even at this level Torker offer 6 frame sizes to fit a wide variety of people. Putting parts that are harder-to-find and service on a bike that new riders may purchase, and have to take care of, is a gamble that Torker made, and I hope that it works out for them. From the perspective of someone who has helped hundreds of cyclists that refuse to get their hands dirty or are afraid to mess something up, a bicycle that requires less maintenance is appreciated, and can help make cycling more accessible to more people. However, entry-level riders should take care when buying this, as the setup is a trailblazing of sorts, and should expect to have to put more effort into servicing it or looking for parts if need be. But given the simplicity of the bike, that time may never come.