In discussions of bicycling for transportation we don’t often give much thought to the bicycle. We talk a lot about laws, facilities to ride bicycles on, and and all of the benefits of bicycling but the lowly bicycle itself gets pretty short shrift. And it shouldn’t. It’s important.
If we want to increase transportation bicycling we need all five of these: 1) safe, comfortable, protected bikeways, 2) a complete network of bikeways, 3) appropriate bikes, 4) many many bike shops scattered through our communities, and 5) mindshare.
If you don’t have a bike that is comfortable and easy to ride and that works for your daily needs then you’ll likely not ride it very much.
Narrow Minded Bike Shops?
If you go in to many local bike shops to buy a bike they’ll ask a few questions and then usually direct you to a hybrid, road bike, or maybe a beach cruiser. Great for trails and racing, not so great for simple every-day riding like a quick trip to the store or to dinner.
If you visit a bike shop just about anywhere outside of North America they’ll show you their city bikes. Only if you tell them you want to race or do a lot of off-road riding will they suggest anything else. Why else, they reason, would anyone want a bike that’s not so comfortable to ride and with external gears and stuff that requires a fair bit of maintenance, may not work as well when wet or clogged with snow, and splatters greasy gook all over your clothes?
The two experiences are polar opposites. Mostly, the only bikes available in the U.S. are drop bar racing and touring bikes, off-road mountain or cross bikes, or beach cruisers and comfort bikes. But, few of us actually race, tour, ride off-road, or on beaches.
A Good Bike
Likely the most popular bike in the world is a Dutch city bike or some close variation.
These are the most popular bikes for a reason – they work. Every feature has a purpose in making them reliable, easy and comfortable for anyone to ride, able to carry the detritus from a day’s errands, and ridden whenever and in whatever clothes you have on. Armani suit? No problem. Badgley Mishka dress and silk Anne Klein heels? No Problem. (For a bit of daily fashion on two wheels check out Cycle Chic)
They come from the factory with the key accessories you need, all fully integrated, so no having to buy extra stuff and wondering about how well this or that will work. They’re designed and built to serve a purpose, last a lifetime and, best of all, they never go out of style.
Their upright geometry is not only safer since your body is naturally upright and your head is higher and more easily able to see people and cars and what’s going on around you, but also healthier because it vertically aligns your sit bone, back, neck, and head. (Most hybrids, cruisers, leisure bikes, comfort bikes, and pseudo-Dutch bikes like the Electra Amsterdam do not provide this crucial benefit.)
This geometry is critical for people with back or neck problems and for older folk. People who ride upright bikes also develop better and healthier posture when off the bike. This is why so many people can so easily and comfortably ride long distances on Dutch bikes—they’re designed for it. I’ve ridden 70 miles in a day in complete comfort. For more read Dutchness.
The geometry and upright posture also take the weight off of your hands which is more comfortable, eliminates sore hands and arms, and makes it much easier and safer to carry an umbrella if it’s raining or a cappuccino if it’s not.
This is all why they’ve remained relatively unchanged for nearly a century (and why sort-of-a-Dutch-bike or looks-like-an-omafiets aren’t so popular).
Fenders. The full fenders do a terrific job of keeping stuff, wet or dry, off of you.
Spats. Sometimes called a skirt guard or coat guard – those covers along the sides of the rear wheel. Similar to fenders – keeps stuff off of you and keeps stuff you’re carrying or wearing from getting caught in the spokes.
Rear Bumper. The tubes that support the rear fender extend out an extra bit which acts as a bumper.
Fully Enclosed Chain Case. Not just a fender across the top of the chain, but fully enclosed on every side. It keeps the chain and drive system clean and functioning well and keeps oil and grit off of your clothes. Prada? Yep, no problem.
Girlfriend Rack. They’re called that for a reason – you can carry your girlfriend or boyfriend on them. These are solid racks that can handle just about anything you can strap on them. Note the permanently attached straps that are always there and ready.
Lights. Front and rear. Typically the rear light is a ‘stand light’ which just means that it stays on for about 10 minutes after you stop. Some front lights are also stand lights. Note that most European countries do not allow blinking lights as they are believed to distract drivers more than make them aware. (Also, check out the super strong spokes in the picture above).
Dynamo. Batteries and LED lights have come a long way, but batteries still require charging and replacing. A dynamo, in the front hub or against a tire, powers both the front and rear lights. Your lights always work. You never have to worry if you forgot to charge them or bring them along.
Reflectors. Bikes in European and most Asian countries are required to have front and rear reflectors, side-wall reflectors on the tires, and reflectors on the pedals. This combination is believed to work better than blinking lights since drivers immediately recognize them as being a bicycle from any angle. This combination also provides others with a good indication of what direction a rider is heading and if they are turning.
Internal Geared Rear Hub (IGH). Unlike the typical derailleur, everything is fully enclosed and as close to bullet-proof as you can get. Even left outside all year in all kinds of weather it’s not unusual for these to go two or three decades without maintenance (though occasional maintenance isn’t a bad idea). They are much easier to use and shift more reliably than external derailleurs. One huge advantage is that they can be shifted anytime, even when stopped, which comes in very handy when you forget to downshift prior to stopping. They are also much quieter than external derailleurs.
Single, two, and three-speed hubs are available and work well for flat or moderate hills. For some people in the Twin Cities a 7 or 8 -speed may be a better option. For the ultimate in cycling luxury, try the Nuvinci variable speed that I have on my Opafiets.
Internal Roller or Coaster Brakes. Another nod to high reliability in any and all weather. Being internal not only reduces maintenance but keeps them working the same regardless of weather. External rim brakes and disc brakes require more maintenance and don’t work as well in wet or snow.
Many Europeans prefer coaster brakes since that allows them to keep their hands free for carrying lumber, holding their cell phone, or both. A coaster brake also has the advantage of no cables while roller brakes are hand brakes with cables. Options are coaster only, rear coaster plus front roller, or rear and front roller. What you choose is personal preference though folks with weaker hands, seniors in particular, should opt for a coaster brake.
Bell. Another legal requirement of all bikes in Europe. Bells work better (people are less likely to be confused and move left) and are more pleasant than “on your left”.
Ring Lock. Locks the rear wheel so that it can’t roll. Given the weight of these bikes this is usually enough for short stops or when you’re in a cafe and can see your bike from where you’re sitting. For longer security needs a U lock or similar may be good to have.
Steering Stabilizer. A spring that keeps the front wheel from turning easily when parked. Keeps your bike more stable and is especially important for loading stuff on front or rear racks or baskets. Also makes riding more comfortable. A seemingly minor detail that makes a world of difference when it comes to the daily enjoyment of these bikes.
Tire and Wheel Size. The slightly larger tire provides a much smoother ride, especially over bumps and curb cuts. The thinner tires on ‘English’ and other bikes are a bit harsher. The larger studded tires that this accommodates do amazingly well in Minnesota winters.
Schwalbe Marathon Tires. These are perhaps the most durable and comfortable bike tire available. The white strip is reflective.
Powder Coated Paint. Another part of lifetime durability.
Stainless Hardware. Yes, more lifetime durability.
Saddle. A leather Brooks B67 or B67s is the ultimate in upright comfort. And let’s be clear, for comfort, this is a very critical component. Other saddles such as those from Selle Royal work well, too.
Overall design, geometry, and construction. These bikes are designed for both comfort and carrying stuff. Many bikes get squirrelly when you weight them down with wine & cheese for 30 of your closest friends, but not these.
Center Stand. Not as ubiquitous as everything above but quite popular. Particularly useful for loading stuff on front or rear racks since the bike is upright and more stable.
Front Rack / Basket / Box. Often the easiest place for carrying stuff. These can be mounted to the handlebars, front fork, or frame. For heavier loads a frame mount is usually preferable. Beyond that it’s personal preference. The front racks on our Omafiets & Opafiets just slide in so are easily removed when we don’t need them, the rack on the Gr8 (above) is attached with screws so is a little more permanent. A basket or wooden wine crate makes a great addition to these racks.
Interestingly, front baskets and boxes are hugely more popular in Denmark and Sweden than The Netherlands where people prefer a box on their rear rack or panniers.
Personalization. Perhaps the most critical element of all. From custom paint to stickers to flowers.
My personal preference is Workcycles, Azor, and Batavus. Second place is Gazelle, Pashley, Velorbis, and VanMoof. Third is Bobbin and Linus which are more ‘English’ bikes but still fairly good. I think the biggest drawback to English bikes is that they aren’t as stable as Dutch bikes especially when carrying a lot of groceries. What works best for me won’t work for everyone though.
Considering the significant difference in the geometry and ride of a true Dutch style bike vs a Beach Cruiser or Comfort Bike you should ideally ride each for some considerable time before buying. In particular, flat foot and comfort bikes can leave some people with unnecessary joint and muscle pains so some caution here may be warranted.
For more on selecting and buying a city bike scroll about halfway down on this page.
Here are some bikes that are more common outside of North America than in.
Our Bakfiets is one version of a cargo bike. These are very popular for hauling children, groceries, hardware, plants, furniture, wine, cheese, or just about anything you can fit in or on it (including 5 gallons of gas). Though originally intended just for hauling stuff, they’ve become the vehicle of choice for parents who like having their kids up front where they can talk to them and point things out as they go along and kids love riding in them.
Parents outside of the U.S. often prefer to have their children up front whenever they can. This allows for better conversation, children enjoy it more, and they see the world around them better and learn from this.
The variety of trikes and other pedal-powered vehicles outside of North America is quite fascinating (photo courtesy of Henry @ Workcycles).
As cities put more and more restrictions on the types of vehicles allowed in to city centers (and even suburbs) it’s necessary to get creative. This is an e-trike.
 Varsity Bike Shop and Calhoun Bike Shop are somewhat the exceptions. There may be others but I’ve not found them.
I was just thinking: I’d love a rack to carry my XC skis to the golf course (St Paul has no shortage of great XC skiing locations that are easily bike accessible).
Also, this is a great piece, Walker. US retail bikes are usually stripped down and this furthers the view that cycling is only for sport/exercise, not every day activities.
I carried some skis and poles under one arm through Amsterdam once. Won’t do that again. 🙂
I have seen people attach a PVC tube or similar to the side of their rear rack for carrying skis.
I think we had a post recently about cargo bikes/trikes and why aren’t local frame builders building them. Could ask the same about Dutch bikes, perhaps.
I’d love to see a local builder build some proper Dutch bikes. The key with these and with bakfiets is getting the geometry right. Given the shipping costs I’ve often wondered if someone couldn’t build them here and still be profitable.
I’ve commented on this subject before. I used to own a Gazelle Toer Populair (was too large for me) and a Workcycles Fr8. Living on the East Side of St. Paul, it was just too heavy for me to go up and down the hills everyday.
I agree on almost everything else and have a winter bike with many of these features. I now ride a Surly Crosscheck and appreciate the more aggressive position. I also favored these bikes when I knew less about bicycle maintenance. I’ve come to really enjoy fixing my own bikes, and the Alfine hub on the winter bike is much scarier to mess with than a derailleur. This is probably what leads to bicycling being a niche activity/transportation option, however. It needs to become more accessible for those who don’t want to become bike mechanics. And it needs to be as functional as plopping down in a car, with headlights, door locks, windshield, etc.
I do want to question, however, if a heavier/slower bike is functional in a city with as much of a sprawl feel as Minneapolis and St. Paul. In a denser environment (and with fewer hills) a slower trip makes less of a difference. You’ve commented before about the functional length of a trip for normal people, and the swiftness of a bike is a key reason for this distance being on the shorter end.
“It needs to become more accessible for those who don’t want to become bike mechanics. And it needs to be as functional as plopping down in a car, with headlights, door locks, windshield, etc.”
A good Dutch bike covers much of that though I don’t know that any bike is as foolproof and reliable as a new car. Flat tires are a bit more likely on a bike depending on where you ride. Maintenance is tough. Many people go years without doing anything other than adding air to their tires but other mechanical problems do happen.
Did you have to do a lot of work on your Alfine? Why?
I was changing a shifting cable and broke the hub where the cable attaches (later learned how it’s done correctly). I had the shop replace the broken piece. Now it has a couple of gears slipping no matter how closely I align the little yellow dots. With a derailleur I would be much more confident investigating and solving the problem myself. The pictures of an Alfine taken apart just scare me:
Sounds like the shop didn’t get something back in alignment correctly. They’re usually fairly bullet proof and consistently shift well. They’re the norm in Europe and so bike shops all know them very well there. I think as they become more popular here then our mechanics will learn them better and service will continually improve.
Yep, IGH’s (internal geared hubs) are kind of beastly on the inside. Much simpler than the transmission in a car though. 🙂
more importantly, is a heavy bike OK for where you have to store it. Times I’ve worked places with outdoor, ground-level, covered, secure parking, it didn’t matter. But a lot of people have to haul bikes up stairs or lift them up onto badly designed racks at each end of their trip.
That’s a great point Rosa. Typical Dutch bikes are quite heavy for carrying up a lot of stairs (or even a few). Unlike bikes with external gears and stuff a Dutch bike can be left outside all of the time for a few decades of good riding. That’s what most folks in Europe do.
If theft or vandalism is a concern or there is simply no place to leave it outside then a lighter bike is certainly warranted. There are lighter versions of Dutch bikes like the Workcycles Secret Service but something lighter still might be good. Folding bikes can also work well for this.
Folding bikes seem like a great solution, though kind of expensive for year-round commuting.
I think theft or vandalism are almost always at least a partial concern – I’ve worked near two football stadiums (one college & one the Metrodome) and had to learn that drunks will stomp bikes just for fun. And bikes are just more vulnerable to theft than cars are. Replacing a bike every 2-3 years has basically been a cost of bike-commuting to downtown for me – one that’s dwarfed by bus or parking costs, of course.
The last bike I had stolen downtown it was because the provided bike parking was so overfull, I couldn’t get close to the rack if I had a late start day. I got incautious and used just a cable because I couldn’t get close enough to u-lock, and someone snipped it. We definitely need more bike parking downtown.
“We definitely need more bike parking downtown.”
Yes. And elsewhere. We should also get indoor parking like so many other places have. More secure and much nicer in inclimate weather.
BTW, something that’s always fascinated me is that bike theft is a fairly big problem in Amsterdam (vandalism is not) but almost non-existent in Copenhagen where many people will not even lock up their bikes.
But the indoor parking often comes with a lot of hauling & other worries like “is my longtail too long for the freight elevator”. And it’s often less convenient than good outdoor parking. One of the perks of bike commuting is not having to walk very far (except on nice sunny days when the whole bike area gets parked up).
This has gotten so, so much better over time. The first time I bought a new bike, about 15 years ago now, I went into 3 or 4 different shops looking for a stepthrough commuter bike and every time they tried to talk me out of if because it wasn’t “serious” enough. Who would want a girl bike? Get a real bike! Well, I need a stepthrough because I have a bad hip, have since I was in my early ’20s. One sales guy actually told me if I couldn’t get on a triangle frame I probably shouldn’t try to bike to work…except I’d been doing it for several years already, various places, on a series of cheap or free used bikes.
I haven’t run into that kind of attitude in a Minneapolis bike shop in years now, and they all carry stepthroughs and “comfort bikes” (plus a lot of them do carry “city bikes” and longtails, too.)
Bicycle shops sometimes get an attitude in general if you’re not their stereotypical customer and don’t look like you have a lot of money to spend. One shop lost $600 I would have spent on a bicycle because all three employees were helping a nicely dressed family pick out a helmet for their kid.
There’s also a local option – QBP’s Civia bikes. Since September, I’ve been riding a Civia Twin Cities 5 speed internal hub bike and loving it. Nice upright geometry, step through frame, fenders, covered chain, integral rack (and all a beautiful blue). I added a couple of shopping panniers and it does everything I need it to do around Northfield.
I, too, have a Civia (Bryant) that has a belt-drive rather than a chaincase. It’s great for winter riding. However, I think the brand is no longer active. Perhaps QBP keeps it on their website because they have plans to restart Civia in the future.
I think a heavy, upright commuter bike is probably great in dense Dutch cities, or for older people who need the comfort. However, I think that with our relatively large geographic area (~10 mi trips are common when traveling around Minneapolis or St. Paul; I wish it was not the case but it is), there’s a reason why most current bike commuters favor Touring or Cyclo-cross style bikes, which are generally robust and steel-framed, offer a less aggressive riding position than a road bike, but are faster than city bikes.
I agree with you regarding some long distance bike commuters. On the other hand, I’ve ridden a Dutch bike to work in Cathedral Hill numerous times prior to the Gateway Trail being closed. That’s about 9 miles with 210′ of climbing each way (according to the new very cool elevation profile on Google Maps). A gob of people live much closer to work and have flatter route options.
Far more important is that most of our trips are quite short trips to grocery stores or cafes. 19,000 people in the northern part of Shoreview and nearby areas can ride to schools and a fairly good variety of shops and eateries with no more than 15′ of elevation (yes, it’s that flat up there) and most of it on segregated paths. And every year more and more are doing so. If that is your world you don’t even need gears, a single speed coaster brake bike will do.
I would love to get a Dutch bike, but the cost is too prohibitive. An entry-level model costs about $900, before shipping and tax. A cheaper alternative is a used Raleigh Sports 3-speed, or similar bike. One in great shape can be easily found on Craigslist for $100-200. If it fits properly, these make great upright city bikes, in my opinion.
I love the old Raleighs and other English bikes. I’ve got an article coming up called Dutch My Bobbin where I mod’d a Bobbin in to a pseudo Dutch bike. Even without the mods they work well for many folks. I think the Civia that Betsy mentioned above is very similar geometry and fit.
I commute 12 miles each day on an electric assist bike and its a game changer. That said, an electric assist bike with Dutch geometry would be the absolute ideal city transport vehicle. Alas, e-bikes are being pushed into the sports category by manufacturers.
I’ve seen people toss a front hub motor onto a Dutch bike but what someone really needs to do is fuse the most advanced tech with an upright bike. A Workcycle with a Bosch 350 Watt mid-drive motor and a 800+ Wh battery would be amazing.
I test rode a Gazelle with a mid drive earlier this year. It was a bit more leaning forward than a typical Dutch bike but not bad and apparently Gazelle are coming out with a traditional geometry version.
I’d love a mid-drive Workcycles Oma, Opa, or Gr8. Me thinks Henry doesn’t think much of the systems currently available and is waiting for a minor bit of improvement.
Do some research on the Flying Pigeon.
Very awesome find.
“With some 500 million units made as of 2007, the Flying Pigeon is the best selling vehicle ever.”
“The PB-13 is the ladies’ version of the classic Flying Pigeon, using a step-through style frame, similar to a Dutch Omafiets.”
Dutch bikes are actually based on English bikes from about the 1880’s and have remained largely unchanged since around 1900.
The Dutch geometry has since been copied world-wide. If you look at the bikes in China, Korea, India, or much of the rest of the world the overwhelming majority utilize Dutch geometry (and include ‘Dutch’ features but I think these are more associated with Dutch than actually invented by Dutch).
In bicycle heavy cities you’ll see periods where another type of bicycle ascends for a bit. The best example is the rise of mtn/hybrid bikes in The Netherlands, then other parts of northern Europe and now in Asia. Throughout northern Europe things have begun reverting back to Dutch standard bikes as people found the hybrids not as comfortable (more forward leaning I think) and missing the reliability and ability to ride in any clothes of the Dutch bikes.