Like a dog’s tail communicates its mood, a bike’s top tube indicates its intent. A level top tube implies a bicycle of classical proportions and dignified comportment. A sloping one suggests light weight and snappy acceleration. And a top tube low enough to easily lift your foot over in order to mount the bicycle means it’s a “girl’s” bike, and not one meant to be ridden hard by serious riders.
While the purpose of the step-through frame was originally to accommodate a woman’s wardrobe (women in pants was a radical concept in the early days of cycling), the gender-specific designation has essentially become meaningless now that we all just wear whatever we want. It’s also ironic that we tend to see step-throughs as somehow less serious than bikes with high top tubes, inasmuch as these were the very bikes that upended Victorian conventions of womanhood in the late 19th century. If anything, the step-through bicycle is the very embodiment of revolution—and yet most laypeople today still think that any bicycle you don’t have to strain a groin muscle in order to mount is one to be passed over for one with the UCI-approved geometry. Go figure.
As a cyclist whose tastes were always informed by a racing aesthetic, I admit I never gave much consideration to owning a step-through bicycle. That changed once I needed to carry more stuff, and I eventually got a cargo bike with a low-slung frame design that allowed me to get in the saddle without karate-kicking my kid in the face. In turn, swinging a leg over a bike–something to which I’ve previously given little thought—started to strike me as kind of silly and pointless. Why should hopping on a bike require Rockette-level flexibility? This isn’t to say I was tempted to divest myself of my vast high-top, tube-framed bicycle holdings (you’ll have to wrest my titanium road bike out from under my cold, dead crotch), but it certainly made me look at step-through bikes a lot differently. The sheer utility of the design now struck me as elegant, and I began to covet them, before finally acquiring a Rivendell Platypus. It’s the first step-through (or “mixte,” or at least mixte-ish) bike I’ve ever owned for all-around riding, and it kicks ass.
Of course the traditional high-top-tube bike does offer certain advantages; principally, the simple diamond frame design offers a strength-to-weight ratio even Festivus Pole engineer Frank Costanza would envy. (Triangles are inherently strong, and a diamond frame basically consists of a front and a rear triangle.) This makes bikes with higher top tubes ideal for competitive applications, where maximum rigidity and minimum weight is everything and getting on and off the bike is barely a consideration—excluding cyclocross, of course, wherein the gymnastics of dismounting and remounting are an integral part of the sport. Yet even race-oriented bikes reveal our latent desire to dispense with top tubes, or at least get them out of the way. Mountain bikes started out with level top tubes, but as the sport evolved, builders realized they needed to construct additional standover clearance for emergency dismounts while simultaneously accommodating those increasingly long (and evil) bouncy forks, so down they went. And in 1998, Giant shocked the cycling world when they put the ONCE team on compact Mike Burrows–designed Giant TCRs for the Tour de France. Granted, the design wasn’t about rider convenience so much as it was about making a stiffer, lighter frame that could be sold in small, medium, and large sizes like a T-shirt, thanks to all that top-tube clearance. Purists were disgusted by the TCR, but the sloping top-tube approach revolutionized road-bike design, and today it’s hard to find a drop-bar bike without one.
As top tubes on professional bikes have inched inexorably downward in recent decades, it would stand to reason that the ones on bikes ridden by “normal” people would plummet even more dramatically. But while step-through bikes are increasingly abandoning their gender associations, they’re still mostly relegated to the realm of the comfort bike, or the stylish townie, or the fitness bike. Certainly comfort and style and fitness are all wonderful things, but there’s also a whole universe of spirited riding between cruising and full-on racing, and it’s here where low-top-tube frames have so much to offer riders seeking robust and versatile platforms for fun and adventure. While my Platypus is great for riding around town, it’s also perfectly suited for long outings, accepts all sorts of racks and bags, and is up for anything short of technical singletrack or a full-on Lycra-clad group hammerfest.
Plus, once you rid yourself of dedicated cycling clothes and clipless pedals and drop bars, the top tube is the next logical step. Is swinging a leg over a traditional frame really that big of a deal if you’re reasonably fit and flexible? Of course not. Nevertheless, the inviting dip in the middle of the Platypus frame calls to you like a hotel bed that’s just undergone turndown service, and it makes getting off the bike to do other things (duck into a coffee shop, jump into a swimming hole, relieve yourself) that much easier.
And while non-gender-specific adventure step-throughs may be sort of a niche product at the moment, Rivendell isn’t the only bike company embracing the low top tube in service of high performance. For years Jones has offered the Spaceframe, touting its comfort and maneuverability as well as its ability to shred the shit out of just about any type of terrain. There’s also the Soma Buena Vista, a mixte that’s on the racy end of the spectrum for the rider looking for something more road-bike-oriented, as well as the gravelly Larkspur 2 from Marin.
In recent years, serious cyclists have come to embrace all sorts of tech once seen as soft, such as wide tires and low gearing. Not only do modern materials and construction methods mean this stuff doesn’t come with a weight penalty, but there’s also a greater understanding that comfort equals performance. So as we abandon the notion that we should all be riding around on 120-psi jackhammers with corn-cob cassettes, we should also at least entertain the notion that our diamond frames can, at times, be pointlessly inhibiting. The higher top tube may look racier, but why let the tail wag the dog?