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The mixte – pronounced meext in French, but MIX-tee in English – is a step-through frame with a twist.
Chances are, you’ve been seeing mixties on the streets more often, whether you’ve noticed them or not. The mixte – pronounced meext in French, but MIX-tee in English – is a step-through frame with a twist. The top tube is replaced by smaller-diameter twin stays that run from the top of the bike’s head tube down to its rear dropouts, bisecting the rear triangle.
Appearing in design sketches as early as 1901, these uniquely beautiful and stable frames proliferated in Europe throughout the 20th century, with notable models produced by French manufacturers Rene Herse and Peugeot after WWII. Some mixte varieties have a single top tube that splits into twin stays between the seat tube and rear dropouts; others have curved twin stays, offering greater clearance, that still terminate at the dropouts. Most bike-history enthusiasts agree that the French term mixte, which eventually came to be universally appended to these bikes, implies “mixed-gender.”
“I first started noticing mixte frame bikes around the early 1970s,” Washington State-based cyclist, mechanic and blogger Kent Peterson recalled, “when the rising environmental movement and the first oil price shocks kicked off the Nixon-era bike boom. The true mixte frame with its twin top tube was a good way to make a strong, yet fairly lightweight bike. In Europe and Japan, they were ridden by both men and women, but in the United States they were clearly thought of as women’s bikes.”
Peterson recalled seeing mixties in US shops into the 1980s. “But as US cycling culture grew to view cycling primarily as a sport rather than an activity, mixties and a lot of other practical bikes became very scarce in the US marketplace,” he explained. “For many years – and even today in many shops! – most of the bikes seem to be designed to answer the question ‘Do you want to race on the road, or race in the mountains?’”
During the mixte’s North American heyday, the US and Canadian market saw offerings from almost every major manufacturer – from high-end, sleek machines to heavyweights with bolt-on wheels. But by the late 1980s and 1990s, as mountain bikes became a unisex bike of choice, mixties faded from popularity. Tour de France champion Greg LeMond went out of his way to recommend against what he called the “mixte or ladies’ bike” in his 1987 Complete Book of Bicycling: “The reason people buy mixte frames is that they are afraid they will have trouble standing above the top tube.” By 1999, sports writer Jennifer Kulier was noting that the mixte had “gone out of fashion.”
In a scholarly essay on bikes and gender, UK design historian Nicholas Oddy identified the “crossbar” (i.e., horizontal top tube) as “the key signifier” of a bicycle’s intended rider’s sex: “Prior to the diamond frame, all bicycle designs were presumed male unless stated otherwise; since its establishment, any bicycle which did not have a clearly defined ‘crossbar’ was presumed female. The so-called ‘mixte’ frame, which originated in France in the inter-war period as a ‘unisex’ design, for example, was quickly feminised because it lacked the crossbar.”
The common gendered perception of the mixte has never stopped both women and men from riding them. Mixties are a useful alternative to the traditional diamond-frame bike, particularly for city riders who mount and dismount often, and for people who have injuries and would benefit from lower stand-over height. Tim and Glenda Wilhelm’s 1980 Bicycle Touring Book praised the mixte as a good option for shorter men and women who want to “comfortably straddle a bicycle with 27-inch wheels.” And elsewhere in the world, manufacturers have long been on board: “All Vietnamese-made bicycles sport the same mixte (unisex) frame,” Lonely Planet’s 2001 Vietnam travel guide stated. To confuse the matter further on the gender issue, many mixties have such a long horizontal reach – especially if built with drop handlebars – that shorter-torsoed women, and for that matter men, may find them a bit of a stretch unless paired with upright bars.
In recent years, a growing number of manufacturers – struck by the aesthetic appeal and utility of the frame – have returned to the design. Launched in 2010, San Francisco’s PUBLIC Bikes has always offered a mixte frame in its design-oriented collection. PUBLIC’s “M” (mixte) series is inspired by early French models and has proved popular as fleet bikes for hotels and corporations. Apple uses them, for instance, on its corporate campus, though PUBLIC spokesperson Dan Nguyen-Tan noted gender disparity among fans: “The split is about 75 percent women and 25 percent men buying our PUBLIC M8.”
Adam McDermott, cofounder of Linus Bikes in Venice, CA, has seen his company’s partially-lugged chromoly mixte do particularly well with urbanites. “There’s something modernist and architectural about its design that I think appeals to city types,” he stated.
Rivendell Bicycle Works, another California-based manufacturer, has seen success with its beautiful lugged steel models, the Betty Foy and Yves Gomez – basically the same frame, loosely branded as “hers” and “his” bikes. I asked Rivendell founder Grant Petersen for his thoughts on why the mixte is still seen by so many as a ladies’ bike. “Well, they are, aren’t they? Perception is reality and all,” he responded good-naturedly. “Guys here own and ride these bikes … I don’t understand why attaching ‘ladies’ to ‘bicycle’ or ‘frame’ denigrates anything. The notion that ladies’ cuts down a bike in any way assumes that we should all aspire to do things that presumably ladies can’t do … to me, a girl’s bike, a ladies’ bike, a mixte or a step-through – is not a backseat bike at all.” A properly braced mixte frame with the right tube configuration, Petersen added, can even be used for touring and off-road riding.
The jury’s out on whom and what the mixte is really built for (and best for). Meanwhile, people all over the world will continue to discover and appreciate the mixte for its rideability, its usefulness for cyclists of all genders and sizes and how its design harkens back to a particularly beautiful period in bike-design history.
Anne Mathews is a Seattle-based musician, writer and fan of bikes who once restored and rebuilt a vintage dusty-rose Bridgestone mixte, then gave it away, which she tries not to regret.