Kona Africabike: The OLPC of bicycles, and better

When I wheeled my Cannondale Capo into favorite local bikeshop NYC VELO yesterday afternoon, I fully expected to retrieve it a day or two later, looking and performing very differently.

What I wanted to do with it was admittedly odd, and in some lights almost Lovecraftian in its perversity: I wanted to take this gorgeous frame – painstakingly optimized in every respect for one role and one riding posture – and force it to different ends, making of it a monstrous hybrid. Not this kind, mind you, nor even this one, but some unholy fusion of stripped-down NYC messenger steed and easy-going Dutch city bike.

This I planned to do by replacing the aggressive bullhorns and their forward-reaching stem with upright cruiser bars, and the carefully ergoanatomic seat with a fully-sprung Brooks saddle. The result, in theory, would have afforded me the more relaxed cockpit, improved overview on traffic, and different kind of riding experience I was looking for, while still allowing me to take advantage of the frame’s basic lightness and responsiveness. But as the component costs, complexity, and associated labor bill all began to peak, reason quailed, the project logic collapsed, and the timeless order of the spheres reasserted itself. More precisely, it was Nurri who did so. And what she asked was this: Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?

Who throws a stolid Brooks onto a bike so designed around weight savings that it sports carbon-fiber forks? Who tries to undo a logic so deep it runs down to the bikeular DNA, and overmaster it with kludged-on parts and geometries? Nobody sane, that’s for sure.

Especially not when this waits at the front of the shop, with a lower pricetag than the components alone would have set me back. This, my friends, is Kona’s $300 Africabike 3.0.

The Africabike is a veritable tank among rides. Formally, anyway, it resembles what a Soviet factory might have turned out if ordered to reproduce the classic Dutch bicycle exactly. It weighs, oh, let’s just say twice what the Capo does. And calling it the “OLPC of bikes” is actually an unwonted compliment to the computer: unlike the OLPC, Kona’s bike was designed with one specific and concrete mission in mind, by which all of its features and material qualities were dictated, and at which it has demonstrably succeeded. What it mostly shares with the OLPC, actually, is the fundamental two-for-oneness of its purchase proposition: you buy one here, and its twin is donated to an HIV/AIDS prevention worker in sub-Saharan Africa (and latterly, Afghanistan).

All this would only go so far toward recommending it, frankly, if it were not also one hell of a lot of fun to ride. Everything that fits this vehicle for harsh African duty winds up rendering it an unexpected blast on New York City streets, from the oversized, puncture-resistant tires to a diamond-hatched saddle so ass-friendly you can easily imagine it furnishing Graceland. And, indeed, you ride like a king, or the King: up high, outlook wide, low tension, movin’ easy. It’s not at all the same kind of visceral kick that I get from breaking traffic on the Capo, but it is a simple and a solid hoot, conveying to the rider just about everything that made bikes fun as a kid. And while I’m perfectly willing to bet you’d get the same kind of experience from, say, a Jorg & Olif Scout, that’d set you back more than twice as much, and you wouldn’t have the satisfaction of knowing that you’d made some contribution, however humble, to HIV prevention efforts where they’re most acutely needed.

I haven’t owned a bike with coaster brakes (or a kickstand, for that matter) since I was eight, so it was kind of a shock to contemplate welcoming the Africabike into our household. But that’s just what we eventually decided to do. The Cannondale gets to remain what it is: lightweight, austere urban transit, a bike so fleet that I’ve ridden duathlons on it single speed or no. I get my city-bike experience, plus some, when that’s what I want. And I’ve helped to ensure that, somewhere in the global South, someone brave is that much better equipped to reach the villages, to teach the people they meet about HIV and how best to avoid it. It’s kind of a win-win-win.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I do believe I’m going for a ride.

13 responses to “Kona Africabike: The OLPC of bicycles, and better”

  1. Abe Burmeister says :

    Nice one, looks like a perfect bust around the hood bike.

    I toss a Brooks on nearly every bike I buy (and I’ve had a bit of a habit lately). That includes my cannondale track frame, the capo’s more aggressive predecessor. Your ass will thank you. You can pass on the sprung ones though, they don’t add too much to the equation and also tend to squeak annoyingly.

    I’d also recommend swapping the bullhorns for some cheap riser bars. I love cruiser bars on track frames had one set up almost exactly as you were planning for a bit, but that’s really a neighborhood only thing. The risers put you lower down than the cruiser bars, but higher than the bullhorns and are significantly better in terms of weaving through NYC traffic than either.

  2. Andrew says :

    Don’t overoptimize for NYC. Helsinki streets is watchin’.

  3. AG says :

    Oh, believe you me, this bike is even *better* under said circumstances.

  4. Derek says :

    Nice. congrats on finding a good new ride.

  5. Arnold says :

    Hmm. . . a brooks saddle runs about 110, plus 30 bucks for some decent riser bars . . . how was the kona less expensive?

  6. AG says :

    Stem, grips, tape, labor. It adds up.

  7. beverly says :

    I just bought my Africabike last week after reading your review. I had planned to trick out my old 21-speed, saw the Africabike in the shop and changed my mind. I couldn’t stop thinking about the bike, so I looked for reviews, saw yours, went back to try it out and took her home. It makes errand running so much fun!

  8. Liz says :

    the Africa bike is a perfect downtown bike with it’s internal locking system I can just pull up next to the shop and turn the key, No more fumbling with lock chains. It could not be easier or faster.

  9. Drew says :

    I love how eloquently you’ve written this up. Great job. Incidentally, a local bike shop set up a tent on my campus yesterday and they had a few bikes on display, but the one that most intrigued was the Africabike, and that belonged to the dude who worked for them! I haven’t been able to think of much else since. Your “soviet” description is pretty much spot on; it felt nimble, but not necessarily light and built like a brick you-know-what.

  10. Travis says :

    Good article! I have been looking for a simple three speed city bike and can’t wait to get my hands on this one! I was considering a dutch bike for the durability but a bike built for the african bush I am sure is quite durable as well. They are so popular right now that they are sold out! All good things come to those who wait I suppose!

  11. AG says :

    You won’t regret the wait. It’s a sweet ride.

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