Fixie inc's Betty Leeds is a bike for those that dare to be different: you are either going to fall completely for Betty's seductively quirky charms or you're not and there is probably no in between.
At first glance the Betty Leeds looks like an exercise in retro-styling and it's made from a 'retro' material, steel. Look a little closer though and you will see that this is no exercise in nostalgia. This is a bike that mixes old school styling with some distinctively modern touches: carbon 'bars, some super-lightweight wheels – yeah we know they had light wheels in the old days too, but not as light as the DT Swiss Mon Chasserals – and a SRAM groupset: they certainly didn't have them back in the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties, Nineties, or er, the year before last.
What's it like to ride?
Put some time in on the Betty Leeds and the words you will associate with the experience are light, nimble and agile. The bike's weight (7.6kg) promises as much, but on the road the Betty Leeds more than exceeds the promise.
The Betty Leeds is a bike that combines comfort and performance – the best carbon bikes deliver that combo effortlessly but they don't have the romantic appeal of steel. This is a bike for people who want classical styling, and even classical materials but with a contemporary twist and very definitely contemporary levels of performance.
So let's talk about the Betty's performance first. If this bike was a car it'd be one of those high end sports tourers, the sorts of machines that will take you long distances at high speed in the maximum comfort. The Betty isn't the lightest bike in the world but it is light enough to deliver. Although we'd say this bike is primarily for the style conscious sportive rider, and although Fixie also do an out and out race bike – the Reynolds 953 Chip Race – in terms of performance I can't really see why you couldn't race Betty, she's certainly fast enough. You'd just have to dare to be different.
In the 54cm medium tested the 73° head angle and 74° seat angle give the bike a sporty stance. This is definitely a more heads down machine than heads up. The ride position is sporty but not so extreme that it sacrifces comfort. Even on this smaller size the seat angle still gets you nicely back off the bottom bracket so you can really scoop into your pedal stroke, while the 73° head angle and 43mm of rake add up to precise but twitch-free handling. All your input on this bike is quickly translated into output with the stiffened chainstays delivering pedal power almost instantly to the back wheels.
At some point on any long ride you are going to have to tackle some hills and this is the sort of bike to be on when you do. The Betty Leeds is one of those machines that leads bike testers into making dangerously subjective comments along the lines of “rides even lighter than it is” because that is exactly what it does feel like when you're in the saddle.
Betty gets you up hills faster and more easily than you would have a right to expect. Of course the bike's weight (or lack of it) plays a part, but there's more to it than that. The efficient power transfer delivered by the stiffened chainstays not only helps deliver wonderful acceleration on the flat, it also means that on hills all your pedalling efforts are delivered to the back wheel pretty much instantly which helps you keep up a good climbing tempo. The SRAM Force 50-34 compact chainset also helps, hooked up with an 11-26 cassette it delivers plenty of climbing of gears to keep you spinning on the ups. The possible downside of that is that stronger riders might find themselves spinning out in a flat sprint – even lesser mortals will do that on descents. But back to the climbs for the moment. Swapping off the ultra-light Mon Chaserals I rode the Betty up my favoured test climbs shod with two different wheelsets: our benchmark Shimano RS80s and the heavier RS20s. On both occasions Betty's climbing power felt hardly diminished at all.
Great as it was going uphill, the down side of the production prototype that we rode was that as specced it wasn't so much fun going down. That was all down to the DT Swiss Mon Chasseral wheelset, which I went on about at length in our first ride piece, when the fear was fresh. Basically these are very flexy wheels, their only redeeming features being their feathery lightness and the Schwalbe Ultremo tyres they came paired with. I really liked these tyres and riding the Fixie with the decidely more capable RS80 wheels, but wearing a set of Hutchinson's more suited to summer weather, brought home just how much of a bike's handling, and your faith in it, is down to the tyres. Over greasy Winter roads I'd have taken the Ultremos on the Mon Chasserals over the Hutchinsons on the RS80s for most situations with the exception of going down hills. Of course the ideal would have been the Ultremos on the RS80s…
The good news is though that the Bettys that hit the shops will get a set of DT Classics – which still benefit from the same light weight rims and hubs but this time paired with beefier Aerolite spokes, the thin Revolution spokes on our wheels being fingered as the cause of the trouble by Fixie.
Get the Betty on the flat and she'll roll along at a fair clip all day and kick up to speed in no time at all. While some might prefer a standard 53-39 chainset I think the 50-34 is spot-on it's great for the climbs and it makes it easier to spin along in the big ring all day if you have to – okay you might find yourself under-geared in the sprint, but then this isn't really a bike for sprinting on. The Betty is more about getting in the zone and laying down some big miles, with any suffering involved of the self inflicted rather than bike inflicted variety. That means your contact points are well taken care of: I didn't even notice the Selle San Marco Aspide saddle – not noticing it is my definition of a good saddle – and the Truvativ Team Road Bar made a good impression too with comfy flat sections on the tops, and a well shapped shallow bend that 's easy to drop into when you want to kick in some power – the bottom hooks could have been a centimetre or so longer but I'm quibbling really.
The saddle, seatpost and 'bars may be Betty's most visible assets when it comes to ensuring your comfort but, just as with the bike performance, as much of the work is done by the combination of the frame, tyres and fork.
Those curved stays may be a tribute to the “subtle curves of an elegant lady or thoroughbred” according to Reçep at Fixie (he's a card!), but they are also about introducing a bit of vertical give at the back. They may look like a gimmick, but the bottom line is that they seem to work – well according to my bottom anyway. Maybe those curves enhance the 'springy' ride usually associated with steel frames – the Schwalbe Ultremo tyres that came with the bike, and latterly the Vittoria Rubinos on the replacement wheels we fitted, certainly played their part too as did the excellent Ouzo Pro fork which tracks superbly but also filters out road buzz.
What do you get for your money?
First off you get a beautifully made and far from run of the mill steel frame. Steel bike she may be, but the Betty's frame isn't all pencil thin round tubes at all, this is the very model of a modern metal tubeset – as well as those manipulated steat stays you get a TriShaped top tube, like a triangle with very rounded out points, and like every other modern bike the down tube changes shape between one end and the other, bi-ovalising through 180° say Fixie, which surely means that the ovalising at the bottom bracket end is the same as at the head tube end except upside down – if the oval is symmetrical how can you tell? The frame's other notable feature, which sets it apart from the retro crowd, is that it is a semi-compact.
The whole thing is beautifully put together with super-neat welds and pleasingly quirky touches like the cuffs on the dropouts, and classy touches like the superb black and pearl paint job which also extends to the inside legs of the Reynolds Ouzo Pro fork.
The drivetrain is all SRAM; in the case of the bike we rode it was mainly from their Force groupset. We really liked the brakes – crisp, powerful, and well modulated – and we liked the feel of the levers and hoods as they really work with the riding position which is performance oriented but not at the expense of comfort. I couldn't get on with the shifting though, this was my first experience of Rival and while I found changing down the rear cassette into higher gears easy, coming back up the block into lower gears was more problematic: it seemed stickier and less precise than the Shimano Ultegra SL I rode both before and after the Betty. I also found that I struggled shifting into the inner ring on the front mech too: on a few occassions it simply wouldn't shift down when I wanted it to, waiting until I'd also shifted down a few more cogs at the back – possibly fixed by more fettling, but very irritating at the bottom of a climb. All that said, there was still enough to like about the groupset to make me want to give it more time.
The Betty Leeds isn't cheap, but if you are in the market for a performance machine that dares to be different then this could well be the bike for you. In our view it is most likely to appeal to the monied sportive rider, in many ways the Betty Leeds is the bicycle equivalent of a Rapha jacket, classical, stylish and expensive… but probably worth it too.
The Betty Leeds is also available as a frame, fork and stem kit for £1080 or as a complete bike with SRAM Rival (all other spec the same as our test bike) for £2375.