When Mark Twain wrote an unpublished review of a big-wheeled, penny-farthing style bicycle in 1884, he advised, “Get a bicycle. You will not regret it, if you live.”
That caution lingered over as I surveyed the pile of bike-shaped parts at my feet. The Swedish home-furnishings company Ikea recently started selling its own bicycle, a utility-focused urban commuter ride they call Sladda. (The name, insanely, means “skid” in Swedish.) Just like the firm’s stylish-but-cheap flat-packed furniture, the Sladda comes to consumers in a great big box full of packing materials and Allen wrenches; some assembly is required.
Our Sladda was delivered to the CityLab offices last week. My colleagues wished me “good luck” and “happy riding.” But it sounded more like, “I remember when my Ikea bookshelf collapsed in my dorm room; this time, you’re the books.”
Ikea is marketing their $399 commuter (note: that’s the price for members of the company’s “Family” rewards program) as “the perfect bike for urban mobility”—an affordable way to get non-bike-nerds back on the saddle, straight from the enlightened cycle utopias of Scandinavia. It’s designed to be cheap, cheerful, and largely maintenance-free; much like Henry Ford’s original Model T, you can get it in any color you like, as long it’s white. Instead of a greasy chain, the drivetrain uses a belt, and there’s a shiftless automatic gear system and a pair of racks, fore and aft, to help you cart your gear around.
On paper, the bike’s specs are impressive for this price range. But we wanted to see if this two-wheeler was a true urbanist wonder, or just another piece of furniture to kick to the curb after the particleboard starts to fall apart.
The assembly process, which my colleague Natasha Balwit and I documented on Facebook Live, was relatively straightforward; anyone who’s ever wrestled a BILLY or BESTÅ into shape will be familiar with the wordless cartoon instructions and plastic bags of tiny screws, bolts, and washers. One key tip: Unlike Ikea’s wooden furniture, the bike’s aluminum frame means there’s no place for screws to give, so don’t strip the threads trying to force it.
After the camera was off, I spent another hour that weekend tinkering and tightening, then took Sladda over to District Hardware for a professional check-up. There, I met mechanic Mike Rosenberg, who confirmed that we put it together correctly: off to a good start!
For a bike marketed to non-cyclists, Mike said that Sladda has some quality components. He was impressed by the Sram two-speed hub with automatic shifting and the Continental chainring. “These are legitimate parts that I could sell to a customer,” he said. “It’s very utilitarian, meant for as little maintenance as possible, very basic in the best way.”
Mike’s colleague, David Maxwell, eyed the brand stamped on the bamboo panels of the bike’s rear rack. He was flabbergasted.
“Yep, it comes flat-packed and everything,” Mike said.
I asked Mike how Sladda seems to compare to other bikes you can order online and assemble. ”Part of that is that Ikea has name recognition. I trust this more than some of those other bikes because I’ve built so much Ikea furniture,” he said. An alternative might be a $400 to $500 hybrid with full gears. But Sladda’s accessories, such as the $25 front rack, the $20 rear rack, the $20 saddle bag, and even an Ikea-branded $15 U-lock that tidily tucks into the frame, would cost more if purchased a la carte from several individual manufacturers.
It’s possible that Ikea’s bigfooting it into the bike market with a low-maintenance bike shipped directly to consumers represents a threat to mom-and-pop bike shops like this. In The Economy of Cities, Jane Jacobs described how Tokyo bicycle assemblers in the late 19th century were undercut by cheaper imported bikes. But the companies adapted by becoming what Jacobs called “light manufacturers”—instead of creating entire bikes, they did repairs and made replacement parts.
So, how does it ride?
When I took Sladda out for its paces on a sunny Saturday, it was quiet—too quiet. The belt drive makes for very smooth, hushed pedaling (and keeps your pants from getting greasy). The two-gear hub, which automatically downshifts at stops or when humping uphill, is similarly stealthy; pump with conviction and you can feel it upshift. At about 33 pounds, this is not a light machine, but braking is swift and sure, thanks to a front disc brake. There’s also a rear coaster brake, just like your childhood bike—certain to appeal to the infantilized Emerging Adult market, or for pulling wicked coaster-brake skids.
Sladda also boasts a number of subtle features aimed at urbanites, such as a sturdy center kickstand to hold the bike upright, minimizing its footprint in a small apartment and easing rack-loading. There’s attention to detail: a discreet built-in bell, a spot to attach a light to the rear-rack for night rides.
One challenge to more serious riders is the fact that Sladda is a unisex one-size-fits-all frame: The seats and handlebars are easily adjusted up and down, and you can choose 26- or 28-inch wheels. For anyone accustomed to the uniformity of a bike-share equipment, the inflexible sizing may not be a deal-breaker, but more serious riders would probably prefer a more tailored frame.
Sladda is a handsome bicycle. The frame’s white polyester powder coating has a certain iPod classic vibe. The click-pieces to attach the front and rear racks are tidy, but you might have to wrench in some screws to prevent them from falling like a Malm dresser, and I have questions about how well they hold up under daily use. That also goes for Ikea’s optional trailer, which we haven’t tried yet.
Bottom line: If you’re a serious cyclist, a fixie aficionado, or one of the determined maniacs that hauls your kids around on big electric-assist cargo rigs, this might not be the coolest bike on the block. It’s fairly heavy, the two-speed gearing makes big hills a chore, and long-term durability is something of an open question (though the frame is covered by a 25-year limited warranty; the belt drive by a 10-year warranty). But as a no-fuss Model T of the urban bikeways, Sladda could be the Swede you need.
Over the weekend, I put the Sladda trailer to the test, in the most Ikea way possible: I bought a used RAST dresser off Craigslist and carted it home. The bike towed the little three-drawer highboy in the trailer attached to its back hub from a quiet side street in D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood to my home in Woodley Park near the National Zoo. The trailer is rated for 100 pounds of gear, so a 27-pound pine chest was no problem; with the furniture tilted on its side and secured by bungee cords, I wiggled past cars on the raceway of Florida Avenue, tucked through construction sites in Adams Morgan, and crossed the Duke Ellington Bridge to deliver the piece to my neck of the woods, without a scratch or dent in it. No cars nor CityLab writers were harmed in the process of this update.