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.