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Bikes like the Dawes Countess may be anathema to those who like to ride fast, but they’re an essential element of urban transport in countries where bikes are mainly seen as tools for mobility rather than as tools for sport. However, there’s no getting away from the fact that the Countess is a weighty and not very efficient fashion accessory.
Dawes’ claimed weight for the Countess is an overly optimistic 16.0kg. It tipped our fisherman’s scales at nearly 21kg (that’s 46.5lb, more than some electric bikes we’ve ridden) just before the hook holding the scales ripped a hole in the ceiling joist and they crashed to the floor with the bike.
I used the Dawes over a couple of weeks for my Bikeability visits to schools around the Bristol area. I normally use a fairly basic rack and mudguard equipped hybrid. I enjoyed the change but, take my word for it, you really don’t want to be keeping a bike like this in a cellar with steps.
The Countess is one of ten bikes in Dawes’ Heritage range. Eight of those ten wear the ‘Duchess’ badge and all but the £299.99 seven-geared Ambassador Gents model have baskets. The Countess sits loud and proud at the peak of the range and is unreserved in its love/hate fashion statement aesthetics.
It’s £200 more than any of the others in the range and it’s easy to see why: it has Sturmey Archer hub brakes (combined with a three speed hub out back) plus a Brooks B66 sprung leather saddle, stitched and shaped leather grips and a colour matched Hesling chain guard and dress guard.
The florally enhanced colour coding extends to the steel mudguards and Schwalbe’s Delta Cruiser 700 x 35c tyres, which also have a reflective strip on the side. Actually, the wheels and tyres are a performance highlight of the bike, almost making up for the massive weight once you get the thing up to speed.
I say ‘almost’ because nothing is going to make a bike like this easy to ride if you’re comparing it to something made from light aluminium rather than heavy steel.
The bolt-upright riding position inevitably conspires with the weight to detract from any attempt at rapid acceleration or going up hills. The slightest rise quickly becomes a sweaty challenge if you’re feeling the slightest sense of urgency.
However, relaxing into a patient cruise is fine provided the road stays flat, and your day will superficially get a little boost from every one of the many people who’ll say ‘Nice Bike!’ as they pass.
Make the most of it. Ring the ‘ding dong’ cylindrical bell at every opportunity. Fill the basket with flowers and fresh bread. Pop the thing up onto its swing stand while you sit and have coffee and pastries. Pretend life is never a rush and perhaps one day it might not be.
The Countess is an attitude bike, obviously meant to be ridden by women in frocks. You could opt to ridicule that imagery, but it’s easier to embrace it.
From the practical point of view, everything works. In fact the Sturmey Archer brakes and gears are excellent, the wheels are tough and well built, the crankset is robust and the basket is genuinely useful.
On the minus side, the rear rack isn’t really up to child seat support duties as it’s simply riveted to a piece of flattened steel extending back from the dropouts rather than to the frame itself. The stand will only work on flat ground and that Brooks saddle is harsher on bottoms than the soft padded saddles that more typically come with bikes like this.
The feedback from other riders on the Countess encompassed both positive and negative extremes. Some said they wouldn't be able to live with the floral overload and would be embarrassed to be seen on it. Others loved the way it looked.
All felt that the upright position felt good at first but, combined with the weight, stifled efficient riding. Everyone loved the gears and the brakes, and used them with ease. Almost everyone needed to get off to push occasionally on Bristol's steeper hills.
And everyone ended up putting the saddle as far back as it would go: we had the 17in bike, there's a 19in one too, with another 50mm of reach from the saddle to the handlebar.
One rider moaned of achey hips, back and neck after riding around town and the same rider found it hard even to lift the bike up onto its stand.
So, what's the Countess for? Well, there's no doubting that the colour scheme and floral embellishments put it at the fashion statement end of the urban bike spectrum.
If you don't appreciate that, there are several £350 bikes in Dawes' Heritage range that are less noticeable, but a lot lighter and consequently far more practical. But there'll be riders who'll love the way this one looks and will want it purely on that basis.
A hefty sit up and beg-to-differ urban utility tool, as endearingly primitive as a large adjustable spanner but with an altogether prettier aura.
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Make and model: Dawes Countess
Size tested: n/a
Tell us what the product is for, and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about it?
It's an image heavy urban utility bike obviously aimed at women who don't relate to the sportier side of cycling. Great wheels, Sturmey gears and brakes are highlights. The massive heft and cramped ride posture are lowlights. Fine for flat roads and low speeds, hard work anywhere else... but people will load you with compliments about its looks.
Tell us some more about the technical aspects of the product?
All steel construction to frame, fork, rack mudguards and chain guard make for a very high weight, but the Sturmey 3-speed hub and hub brakes are highlights and the Brooks saddle is a nice finishing touch, if not that comfy.
Strong but heavy. It's a pity the rear rack isn't more sturdily attached to the frame.
You're not going to enjoy rushing or going uphill on a bike like this.
The frame, the wheels and the finishing kit should be very durable but the rack and stand need to be more sturdily attached.
If you're riding without much effort you can relax into it, but the ride position doesn't allow you to use your upper body properly and the saddle isn't as comfy as you might expect.
Tell us how the product performed overall when used for its designed purpose
Fine at low speeds.
Tell us what you particularly liked about the product
The looks are a love/hate thing but received many compliments. Full chain, mud and dress guards will be loved by those who like the looks. Sturmey gears and brakes are excellent.
Tell us what you particularly disliked about the product
Did you enjoy using the product? Not particularly.
Would you consider buying the product? No.
Would you recommend the product to a friend? No.
Anything further to say about the product in conclusion?
Those who buy will probably buy purely on aesthetics, which are good enough for a shop window display.