Review: Torker Graduate

At first glance, the Torker Graduate is a nondescript, simple, even workaday bike. But its “ordinariness” is in fact one of its strengths. This is a basic, yet versatile machine that can take a lickin’ and be depended upon for transportation for many maintenance-free miles, one that won’t attract too much attention locked up outside, or need much of your attention once it’s back inside.

The Graduate’s matte gray frame is made of “Tri-Moly” steel, meaning the three main tubes (in the front triangle) are lighter, stronger chromoly, and the rear end tubes are slightly heavier (and less expensive) high-tensile steel. To balance out the bike’s swept-back handlebar, the top tube is long enough to give the bike a sportier feel than some other bikes with swept bars. My position atop this bike was nice and relaxed, but not so much that it was impossible to go at a decent pace if I wanted to. I was able to stand up to pedal without feeling like my hips were too close to the bars to get good leverage. It’s notable that this bike comes in a full range of six sizes, unlike many similarly priced bikes, so it should be possible for nearly everyone to find a comfortable fit.

 

The main attraction on the Graduate is subtle: its Sturmey-Archer 5-speed internal gear and drum brake hubs. The five speeds of the rear X-RD5(W) model hub are selected with a twist shifter. Sturmey-Archer has been making internal-gear hubs since way back in 1902, and the name has become woven into the history of racing, transportation, and leisure bicycles (as well as motorcycles). They even have a few streets named after them in the Netherlands. The brand has seen a revival in the last few years as internal hubs have gained popularity along with the resurgence of more utilitarian bicycles. Like the drum brake component of these hubs, the shifting is unaffected by weather, and needs almost no maintenance—“no routine lubrication is required,” says the manual, until such time as a “major service” is needed. Who knows how many years down the road that would be.

I needed to adjust the shifting a couple times before it settled in, which wasn’t too difficult once I looked at the instructions. Once adjusted, the bike shifted well enough, although it was never as smooth as the more expensive Nexus internal hub options from Shimano. There was a fair bit of resistance in shifting down, and some extra “pull” when shifting up, so that I’d sometimes inadvertently skip a gear. With this hub it’s possible to shift at a standstill, a nice feature at stoplights, but the other side of that coin is that it’s also necessary to ease up on pedaling to complete a shift, which robbed momentum if I didn’t remember to shift early going up a hill. I got used to these quirks. The 256% gear range was just fine for my moderately hilly grocery trips and commutes. I spent most of the time in gear #3, and I rarely used #1 or #5—the lowest gear was just low enough to ride, not walk, the steepest parts of my commute, and the highest gear was good for keeping the pedals turning on a long, gentle downward grade. This is with a front chainring of 42 teeth and a rear cog of 18 teeth; cogs from 13 to 22 teeth are available, if you should want to adjust this hub’s gearing up or down.

For those of you who’ve never encountered bicycle drum brakes before—I hadn’t either before this test—they are akin to the drum brakes on your car: the brake pads press outward against a braking surface inside the hub shells. These are operated with regular cables and mountain bike-style brake levers (Avid Speed Dial in this case). At first, the brakes felt soft enough to be scary, but they do need some time to “burn in” to get up to full power. I made a point to slam on them while going downhill with a full grocery load a few times, and that improved the brakes’ power significantly. In fact, they seemed to continue to get more powerful throughout the test. By the end, they felt nearly as powerful as the disc brakes on my regular commuter ride, but smoother and less grabby, almost like antilock brakes; they definitely had more grip than rim brakes, and like disc brakes, they were unaffected by wet weather.

The Graduate comes with basic black plastic fenders (very similar to the Planet Bike ones reviewed on page 58), and has mounts for a rear rack, which I made good use of. No rack mounts on the fork, but that may change in the future. I added a kickstand, bottle cage and lights to complete the package; can’t complain about needing to add a few things when this bike only costs $500. One nice parts choice I really appreciated was the Tioga Gritty Slicker tires in 32mm width—they offered a perfect mix of grip and smooth-rolling feel, with small but aggressive side knobs and low-profile center knobs. They handled wet pavement, gravel, and some mild dirt with ease.

The Torker Graduate is a good value for someone who plans to ride more than just casually, but who doesn’t need to spring for the higher end in performance (and price). It would be perfect for a college student. I was impressed with the bike’s range—it handled my 12+ mile commute with enough pep that it wasn’t a chore, but it was pleasant to pedal casually down to the corner store. Torker offers a limited lifetime warranty on all their bikes.

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