Where are Britain’s practical bikes?

One of the many impressions from my recent trip to the Netherlands is how everybody rides pretty much the same bike.


This is the basic – and pretty indestructible – classic Dutch bike. It’s either single speed, or has hub gears; it has a chain guard and an integral lock; it has lighting built onto it; the brakes are either drum brakes, or back-pedal only; it has mudguards and a rear rack, heavy duty tyres, and is generally built like a tank.

The durability of these bikes is part of the reason why so many of them that you see in Amsterdam and Utrecht are pretty ancient; they’ve just kept going, and going, and going, despite punishing daily treatment. (The other reason is that these bikes are no great loss if they get stolen).

I can vouch for this durability. I’ve had a Dutch bike of my own now for about 18 months, and in that time, I haven’t done any maintenance on it all, apart from occasionally pumping up the tyres, and a simple adjustment of the gear cable.

It strikes me that Dutch bikes – and they way they get used – are analogous to the cars, and the way we use them. Modern cars don’t require much (or indeed any) maintenance from their users. They are designed to be stress-free to operate; if something does go wrong, you take it to a garage. Similarly Dutch bikes do not required maintenance – if and when something does go wrong, the Dutch generally take their bike to their nearest shop.

And, in precisely the same way that you can operate a car in your ordinary everyday clothes, so you can just hop on and hop off these bikes in whatever you happen to be wearing. They are designed to fit around you, rather than requiring you to adapt to the bike.

This isn’t true of the bikes we ride in Britain, which I think fall almost entirely into three categories

  • the standard mountain bike;
  • the racing bike;
  • the hybrid.

The first two do not have any of the features that would make them practical. They have exposed chains and transmission; they have derailleur gears, which are tricky to maintain; their cabling is also often exposed to the elements; the tyres are prone to puncturing; and they do not come with essential features like mudguards, racks, built-on lighting, or integral locks.

Much the same is also true for hybrids, which quite often look like this –



Indeed, I was prompted to write this post by a handout given to me during a lecture by Rachel Aldred last week, discussing barriers and impediments to cycling in Britain.DSCN9858The subject of this particular handout was, as you can see, ‘Stuff’ – about how riding a bike in Britain requires a huge array of extra equipment that either has to be taken on or off the bike, or worn, which makes riding a bike unnecessarily inconvenient and complicated. In addition, these bikes require maintenance; they go wrong, and people generally do not have the skills to fix them.

I suppose the bigger question is why the vast majority of bikes ridden in Britain are so impractical. I can think – off the top of my head – of three possible reasons, although there may be others.

The first is that cycling in Britain is still very much a sporting activity. People ride bikes to get fit, or to exercise, or for leisure. Our cyclesport culture is actually pretty healthy – by stark contrast to our transport cycling culture – and that is undoubtedly reflected in the bikes people buy. Fast bikes are also a help when it comes to just making simple trips about town. British bicycle users are still perversely expected to behave like motor vehicles, so any bicycle that can make you travel more like a motor vehicle will obviously be relatively more attractive.

The second reason accounts for why the mountain bike is still the most popular bike in Britain. Namely – if you want to ride away from motor vehicles – as the vast majority of people do – then you pretty much have to have a mountain bike. Trails and bridleways are not at all easy to ride on any other kind of bike. Likewise bumping up and down off pavements (using pavements when you just don’t fancy the road is very common indeed) is much easier on a bicycle with chunky tyres and suspension.

The third reason potentially lies with the bike industry itself. Now of course bicycle companies and shops have to make money, and to sell the bicycles that people want. There probably isn’t the demand right now for Dutch bikes to be sold in huge numbers, because they’re not that much fun to ride on fast busy roads, and they’re not the best for off-road routes. That said, I am struck by how – if I went into a Dutch bicycle shop – I would just buy a bike, and that would pretty much be it. The only other ‘accessory’ I might need would be a chain lock, to accompany my integral lock. I wouldn’t need anything else.

By contrast, if  a typical consumer goes to a large bicycle shop, from scratch, wanting a ‘commuting’ bike off the shelf, they would need a large amount of extra ‘stuff’. Two locks. Lights. Clips to keep  their clothing away from the chain. A rucksack. Waterproof clothing (or some clip-on mudguards). They’d probably end up with a good amount of ‘cycle specific’ clothing too, because commuting is fast, and requires exertion. They might get a helmet, or a hi-viz vest. Their bike will also require maintenance, and tools to look after it, if the owner is so inclined.

These are all the ‘optional extras’ that the bike industry can – and does – sell. I don’t really blame them for doing so; we’ve ended up in this position because cycling has been shaped by the environment people have to cycle in. Nevertheless there undoubtedly exists an incentive for the industry to carry on as before, selling large amounts of cycle-specific ‘stuff’ to accompany bikes that require maintenance and add-ons. But it is precisely all this extra faff – maintenance, clothing and bits – that represents a significant barrier to cycling for the general population.

Thoughts welcome below.


This entry was posted in Cycle sport, Cycling renaissance, Helmets, Infrastructure, Subjective safety, The Netherlands. Bookmark the permalink.

130 Responses to Where are Britain’s practical bikes?

  1. The Dutch are a very practical nation – as I’m sure you are aware. Perhaps the bike industry here should make a few trips.
    As it happens, I prefer not to wait for the industry to change so I’ve bought a Christiania cycle. For daytime use, it has everything (I will need to add lights when I start cycling at night), hopefully needs little maintenance (except for tyre pressure, etc.) and is a joy to ride.

  2. Paul Smith says:

    Spot on, and this is one of the biggest limiting factors in the UK, people need to be a bike expert, or know one to get a bike set up for commuting in most cases. Then when sensible bikes are sold, they’re often many times more expensive than cheap mountain bikes, that people don’t know will break down after a year or two.

    When we got my other half her bike for commuting and shopping, spent £300 on the bike, and then another £200 on bits to make it usable. Mudguards, rack, lights, locks. Had to replace the chain 3 times in about 2 years since then, a typical user would just get a wet arse and a broken bike by now. I was trying to lean her in the direction of a Pashley at the time, Evans had other ideas!

    Over the last couple of months was tasked to find a bike for a her sister to commute on couple of miles a day, the challenge was the budget, no more than £50… Requirements I had set myself: Kickstand, mudguards, rack, and a chain with very little wear and handlebars that rise to a respectable height. Took a while but managed it, with a few failed attempts that are sitting in the shed. When I was living in Somerset or Hampshire that would probably been impossible to find on the second-hand market, luckily Horsham does have it fair share of sensible bikes. 🙂

  3. parimalkumar says:

    Really good post, as always. Riding into work this morning (a journey of 20 miles which goes from suburban, Richmond Park and then very urban) I tweaked a muscle in my leg which forced me to ride at a more gentle pace of 20kph / ~12mph as opposed to my normal 28-32 kph (16 – 20 mph). This distinct (and suddenly brought on) lack of speed left me feeling very exposed and incredibly vulnerable.

    Suffice to say, if gentle speeds was all that I could manage (whether through choice or physical issues) I would give up cycling on UK’s roads pretty quickly. Speed and behaving like a motor vehicle is the only thing that keeps me (subjectively) safe on our roads. This morning’s experience was very much affirmed my view that if we are ever going to get mass cycling then Dutch style infrastructure & enforced legal priority of pedestrians & cyclists over motor vehicles is required. Everything else is just a waste of money.

  4. I have the same experience. I ride a Dutch mummy fiets and it has chain guard, dress guard, lights hub gears, hub breaks and integral lock. I take it about once a year to the bike shop for a £35 service which is well worth it and I regard it like a car, I check the tyres and that’s about it. I ride in normal clothes and never get a drop of oil on me.
    Even the highway code treats bikes like they are industrial equipment, going on about wearing clothes that wont get caught in your chain. They don’t seem to regard 40 tonne lorries feet away from our precious children industrial equipment, that’s what annoys me.
    The preoccupation is with weight here which unless you are competing for a medal is completely irrelevant. As far as your fitness, or effort is concerned it’s far more important that your bike is maintained and if you use it every day, you will soon get used to the amount of effort required to commute to work. Not having mudguards or a carrier? why? where do you put your shopping, your lock? what happens if it rains?
    The culture of buying a naked bike and having to pay for everything what we have. It’s like cars used to be; you could get the basic model, no radio, no electric windows etc. Now pretty much all new cars come with all included.
    Buying a fixie with no brakes is like buying a formula one car and expecting to drive it on the roads. Bikes need be road worthy just like cars have to be.
    Bike shops haven’t caught on and could do much more to make cycling an everyday thing. I think alot of it is that bike shops are run by lycra wearing sport cyclists. My local shop is full of stuff for racing cyclists and there is nothing of interest for me unless I need a new inner tube or set of lights.
    Halfords where my mum lives in Holland is in the shopping centre, concentrates mostly on bikes, mostly the utility variety and sells lots of quirky bells, crates, flowers, funky bags and panniers, baskets etc. A whole different shop to a bike shop here. I love mooching around bike shops in Holland!
    The preoccupation with weight is a white elephant, one that has caused many a ruined pair of trousers and kept many from enjoying the pure pleasure of riding around!

  5. Chris says:

    There is one glaringly obvious difference you’ve missed between cycling in the likes of Amsterdam & Utrecht and cycling in the UK, and there’s absolutely nothing anyone can do about it….


    For much of the Netherlands bar the far South, the nearest thing to a hill you’re likely to encounter on a bike is a canal bridge. By contrast, even though my commute to/from London is essentially flat compared to much of the UK, I still wouldn’t want to be cycling up the 100ft or so of climbing I have near the end of my ride on 18-20kgs of fixed speed bike.

    As for the other points made….

    There are plenty of bikes of all descriptions with mudguard and rack mounting points, but why force people to have them, rather than giving them the choice? There’s also no reason why I couldn’t ride my commuter with normal clothes on if I wish – a pair of trouser clips are hardly expensive or weighty! Likewise, for much of the year, I don’t need lights. So I just leave them at home and don’t carry the weight around with me in the summer. When it gets dark, I just put them on the bike and use them.

    It seems pretty insulting to suggest that the average person in the UK wouldn’t be able to cope with buying a couple of optional extras to go with their bikes! One might wonder how they manage to buy clothes unless shops provide them as complete outfits from the shoes up, or indeed how any of us ever manage to create meals from raw ingredients, rather than surviving on microwave ready meals?

    • It’s flat where I live. Nobody rides a practical bike.

      Have you ever tried riding a Dutch bike? You might be surprised how easy it is to up a hill on it. You just go slower!

      Finally, I think you’re missing the point slightly. If you want to buy a sporty bike, or a touring bike – fine, buy one. You can do this very easily in the Netherlands. My argument is that bikes, properly equipped for simple day-to-day use, are very rare in the UK.

      • Chris says:

        You’re picking one very tight definition of “practical”, though.

        A Dutch bike would be completely impractical for me, as the vast majority of my riding is a 32 mile round trip commute 2-3 days per week which I just wouldn’t be able to do quickly enough to be practical on a Dutch bike.

        My most recent purchase – admittedly based on figuring out for myself what was practical over a couple of years of commuting rather than just asking a shop – couldn’t be more practical for my purposes. It’s a Boardman CX bike with full mudguards and a pannier rack and 700x35c tyres which are near impossible to puncture. I can take all my spare clothes, wallet, lock, laptop and anything else I need, and still have space to stop off at the shops on my way home if I need to get stuff in for dinner.

        My wife, on the other hand, tends to ride a couple of miles or so at a time. She has a step-through Specialized Globe with a clip on shopping basket on the handlebars. She loves it, but I suspect that wouldn’t count as practical though, as it has derailleur gears and cantilever brakes?

    • parimalkumar says:

      I could use all your arguments around to make the case for complete vehicular cycling and removal of all pavements (to allow for more road space). I don’t believe Mark implies that British public is too stupid to buy accessories / “optional extras”. He is highlighting that such a need is another, albeit (relatively) small, barrier to mass cycling. Or at least that is my interpretation.

      Not everyone can be bothered with optional extras – imagine if all cars were sold as bikes are in the UK – you’d have to decide each time you went out whether you wanted to fit lights on it or not, etc. The point is that all the “optional extras” that are standard & fixed on a ‘Dutch’ bike remove an extra little barrier to mass cycling. Sure it’s not for you or me but I certainly am not what “mass cycling” is aimed at – I already cycle regularly for utility.

      Yes, Britain has hills but not everywhere is hilly. Dutch bikes also have lower gearing ratios than hybrids or road racers, much closer to mountain bikes, if not even lower.

      As Mark alludes to in his post the bike market in the UK caters for your needs pretty well – a stripped down bike where you choose the optional extras you need and presumably are capable of doing some maintenance beyond pumping up the tyres. What the UK market doesn’t cater for are the people who just want to ride a virtually zero-maintenance bike with all the kit no matter what the conditions (lights, mud guards, pannier racks, kickstand etc all included).

      • Chris says:

        I got a new company car earlier this year. The options list (even for a relatively simple Ford) was a mind-boggling list of acronyms and technical terms! Even now, 5 months later, if you gave me the options list again, I wouldn’t be able to tell you exactly what I picked, or tell you exactly what it does on the car!

        Cars are not simple. They are extremely complex. In fact, they are so complex that most people don’t even think of doing their own servicing or maintenance. They just take them to a garage and pay them to do it. If we’re happy to take cars to garages for servicing, why not bikes?

        This all seems to be a bit of a red herring though… If people are unable to find a practical bike to ride on in the UK (such as the Specialized Globe my wife has, although I’m sure there must be plenty of other brands available) then I’d suggest the problem lies with bike shops, not with the actual bikes available. I did just go on to the Specialized website to check that they do still sell the Globe, and I wasn’t arguing for the availability of bikes which are no longer available, and not only is it still available, it’s now equipped with an Alfine hub, so doesn’t even have the apparently huge drawback of derailleur gears any more.

        Maybe the question should be “why aren’t people in Britain buying “practical” bikes”, or “why aren’t bike shops in Britain selling practical bikes”, but the answer to where they are seems to be “available to buy from Specialized, and presumably other manufacturers”.

    • Colin says:

      And one you are missing. The Netherlands are hellishly windy 😉

  6. Chris says:

    A further thought, specifically for London…

    The majority of the people who commute by bike to my office in Waterloo come on from the suburbs, and are riding round trips of roughly 15-35 miles. Whilst a Dutch-style shopping bike might be lovely for riding a couple of miles in work clothes at slow speeds, those slow speeds become totally impractical if they mean your commute is suddenly taking 2 hours each way.

    For those who live closer to the centre and do have a shorter commute which could be done on such a bike, surely the answer to the question for London at least, of “Where are Britain’s practical bikes”, is that they’re parked up waiting for you all over the place, and they’re called Boris bikes?

    • This would be a valid point if I was suggesting that everyone who rides a bike has to ride a Dutch bike.

      I’m not.

    • bz2 says:

      Two points:
      a) apparently* in-hub gear systems have a 92% efficiency versus 98% for a derailleur system, so your commute will only be lengthened by about 6% – and only if you’re not being slowed down by external factors at any point.
      b) a lot of the long-distance cycle commuters I know have a racing bike, recumbent or even velomobile for their commute, and a sensible upright bike for going to the shops/friends/bar, as well as going on holiday or touring on weekends — who wants to go on a recreational ride with a posture that encourages a good view of the tarmac under you instead of the countryside?

      * http://hubstripping.wordpress.com/geared-hubs-vs-derailleur/

      • Fred says:

        With a 3 speed in middle gear the efficiency is 100% because it’s fixed! That’s where I spend most time. I think it’s a valid point through, if you’re looking for speed and top efficiency at all speeds hub gears may not be for you. However the point of the post is that actually treating every cycling experience like a race doesn’t appeal to many (possibly most) people. Hub gears are simple, low maintenance, better suited to chain guards and produce a neat/tidy looking bike (even without a chain guard there’s a lot less to get snagged on). Also many people with 24 gears use about 7 of them.

        Personally if I’m going to be riding all day I want to be sitting upright and comfortable, not craning my neck or bent right over. However that’s a posture/ergonomics thing and different positions will work out for different people.

        It’s a case of horses for courses, racing type bikes will always be available for those who want them. However for people who want different types of bikes I think the selection can be poor. In particular people who want a simple step through bike which is light find it difficult (my and my friends’ mums as a for instance).

        Possibly a gap in the market if someone wants to make traditional type light aluminium bikes…

    • Yes, my immediate thought was that the article was describing a Boris bike. And of course, there are not many serious hills in Boris bike territory. True, when I was 14 I could take on some serious hills on a 3-speed, but I’m shifting a lot more weight up them now!

      Come to think of it, what is the gearing on the Dutch 3-speeds? The Boris bikes are very low geared, which is fine for a short hop around town (and so right for the job) but not so good for a long commute. Almost all of Amsterdam is within 5 miles of the city centre. I live in London, but I’m over 16 miles from the city centre, which in Amsterdam would put one beyond Wormerveer or Naarden — a commute that Dutch cyclists would be unlikely to have to face, and one that needs a rather different bike.

      • Orlando Castillo says:

        It’s not that difficult. You are saying that it’s best to hop on a Ferrari for a distance and convenience that any VW or Ford could do. You probably are not aware of how uncomfortable a typical UK bike can be.

    • Arno says:

      Luckily, I am dutch. Dutch kids ride their bikes from and to school on round trips of about 30 to 40 kilometers here every day! And they do so mostly on the typical dutch bikes. You are grossly exaggerating the amount of time it would take. These kids (kids, not grown ups) are able to commute (as I did) from and to school in 30-45 minutes. So a round trip would take 1hr-1hr30 minutes (depending on wind, weather and driving alone or in a group of friends). That’s not even as much as you are stating a round trip would take. You are quite misinformed on this subject as I can clearly read in your comments. Have you ever been to The Netherlands? Have you ever observed the reality of the Dutch road systems and cycling infrastructure? If not, how can you judge?

      • Simon says:

        Given your suggested times would imply a 17-19mph (27-30kph) average speed on a Dutch bike, may I be the first to say you are talking balls.
        Based on my experience of riding around London (as a fit adult male), 12mph would be an impressive average speed in London once stopping for lights, junctions and so on are taken into account. My commute of just over 6 miles (10km) takes approx 35 mins each way.
        I’m all for Dutch bikes, but there is no point being ridiculous about their capabilities. Maybe the person to whom you were responding exaggerated the amount of time it would take (I estimate a round trip of 1-3 hours for 15-25 miles) but you’ve gone too far the other way.
        And, yes, I have been to the Netherlands. Dutch cyclists tend to ride much more slowly than London cyclists.

        • Arno says:

          You’re right. Was at work, didn’t have exact km’s. So here I go again:

          I used to travel from home to school every day. This was approx. a 12,3 km trip. This means a 24,6 km round trip. If I took the time (riding with friends, talking) it would take me 45 minutes one way. If riding alone it could be as fast as 30 mins. (assuming there is almost no wind, I’ve done it in 15/20 mins on a dutch style bike but there were storm like winds that time 🙂

        • Danny Yee says:

          It’s possible to maintain high average speeds without cycling too fast if the infrastructure makes stopping unnecessary and gives you priority at intersections. See e.g. http://bicycledutch.wordpress.com/2014/01/02/cycling-from-de-bilt-to-utrecht/

        • vantheman says:

          That was a bit rude

          • Simon says:

            A bit blunt, perhaps. But Arno took it in the manner it was intended – he was exaggerating but I don’t disagree with his fundamental point.

            • plien says:

              It was blunt & rude & misinformed.

              That you wish to cycle at great speed, doesn’t mean everybody does or even that it’s the best way to get many people to cycle.

              I used to cycle 35 km one way, so that’s 70 km round trip, to school everyday. On a ‘omafiets’, one speed, back pedal brake only. Granted only from march till october, in the winter i took the bus.

              Because the Netherlands has seperate cycle paths, you can ride on and on and on without stopping. It’s the stopping that takes the speed away. So yes, even those distances are perfectly doable on a Dutch bike, sitting comfortably upright in your everyday clothes (i was a goth, so that’s long flowing black dresses & full skirts) and arriving at your destination without sweat & having to shower/change clothes.

              I have owned a mountainbike and my brother & daughter go speedcycling together.
              Those things are terrible in maintenance, the open gear system catches all kinds of dirt & you can’t hop onto them to get something from the shop, cause your trousers _will_ get caught & smeared with oil(not to mention the chance of falling over as that happens! *eek*).
              This means you use them less then a bike you just get on and ride away, which in turn means there are less bicylclists on the steets which lessens bicycle safety.
              Also those bicycles “force” you to bend over. I find them very uncomfortable. And you “have” to wear helmets because of the speed. I wouldn’t use those for an everyday commute. It’s a pain in the arse.

              If i were to live longdistance from my work now i would use an upright bike + public transport or a recumbent bicycle, i love those! I used to own a car, but i did it away because it’s just not needed here. I can do everything by bike, haul cargo with a ‘bakfiets’ & get to another city by train. MTB’s & speed cycles are for play only.

              Oh and i’m from the east of the Netherlands, we have hills here. Maybe not as much as those mythical ones everybody keeps using as excuses not to cycle abroad, but NOT the whole of the country is a ‘polder’ & completly flat.
              Where i live now is flatter, but that means you have to reckon with the wind, which for some reason is _always_ against you… We even have songs about it. (^-^)

  7. The thing is that we used to ride them! Back in the 1970s I had a Raleigh RSW II – a small wheeled Raleigh bike complete with hub brakes and dynamo, I rode it to death for my paper round, riding to school and basically “hanging out” with my mates. I was probably riding it 10 miles a day. Later, after the RSW died my dad bought me a Puch Tourist, a typical 3 speed roadster with flat bars, again it got hammered to and from school and trips to my mates – it wasn’t unusual to ride it 30 or 40 miles. I didn’t need (in those days) a 5 or even 10 speed bike, what I did need was a bike that would get me places safe and was reliable. Before people mention HILLS, I lived near the Uffington White Horse so climbing up and down the Berkshire Downs was a daily ride. I suspect that what happened was a combination of a shortsighted UK bike industry that looked to the US for inspiration, Thatchers government pushing the use of the car above any other form of transport and also a snobbish bike culture that said old style bikes were somehow wrong – if anybody has an old copy of Richard’s Bicycle Book check out how he denigrates old style roadsters in favour of traditional British touring bikes. Recent attempts to re-introduce the roadster have been laughable, bikes which appear to be Dutch but with derailleur gears and rim brakes. There really isn’t an excuse, my current roadster has an 8 speed hub gear, coaster brake, hub dynamo, enclosed chainguard and mudguards……..but it’s German.

  8. yalleriron says:

    The British (or should I say, Scottish?) machine that has all the desirable practical bicycle features you describe is the PAPER Bicycle http://www.paper-bicycle.com/

    I ordered and bought the 8-speed hub geared version late last year, and I am delighted with it in every respect. It is deceptively “simple”, but is actually rather “sophisticated”. This is down to the exceptionally clever and well-thought-out design.

    I mostly use it for short (5 or so miles) round trips to shop, getting about generally and occasional longer “scenic” rides, part on-road and part off-. It’s good at carrying loads, can be ridden at a respectable “lick”, and is very comfortable yet feels lively. Riding at dawn, dusk or night, the hub dynamo-driven B&M lighting provides plenty of illumination. I have the bad habit of loading “stuff” into my panniers and forgetting to take it out, but on a day I took them, and the excess weight, off, it fairly flew.

    I ordered the Paper’s own “plug-in” luggage rack, for use with the Carradice panniers I had. All I needed to add was a chain lock. I also treated myself to a good metal-bodied Schraeder pump, and stuck a nice big round red reflector I found in my Spares box on the back of the rack. And that was that.

    Routine maintenance is simple, with minimal tools, and it’s easy to get at various places. Most full plastic chaincases such as those on my Gazelle are a pain, as they are quite fragile, and fiddly to take off and put back when work is needed on the transmission. The Paper’s “panel” chaincase design is much easier to deal with when, for example, I want to check chain tension or measure wear.

    As with many good things, it is not exactly inexpensive, but with a minimal amount of care should last a lifetime.

    I should also add that I have no connection with the Company, other than being one very satisfied customer.

  9. Tom says:

    I’d tend to disagree with the post above. As Pater Familias I find myself responsible for ensuring an entire family’s bikes are maintained and have working lights when people go out of the door. This is a hassle, and not everyone is interested in having to think about this sort of stuff. Why do you think you see so many bikes on the pavement with no lights come the autumn in the UK?

    But, its also cultural, I want to fit in…..

    There is a bike loan scheme I know of where people get the choice of a specialised crosstrail or a Trek Manhattan i.e. a direct choice between a UK style MTB-Lite or a tradditional bike with guards and hub gear. Guess which one they all go for in overwhelming numbers?

  10. What I forgot to mention was the sheer ease of being able to walk out of my house in ordinary clothes and shoes, get on my bike and ride it. One reason I bought a roadster a few years ago was that I realised how crazy it was that I was dressing up to go shopping on my touring bike! Also at 16 stone I look stupid in lycra.

  11. Bill says:

    My Brompton is pretty practical with the front bag attached. My commute is a ten mile round trip from Hampstead to the City and back. The three speed hub gear, with the slightly larger rear cog, is perfectly adequate for taking me up Haverstock and Rosslyn Hills.
    Complaints about the UK being hilly don’t make sense to me. I live in one of the hilliest bits of London and, without wishing to make a virtue out of a necessity, you just get used to it.

    • fonant says:

      I quite agree. Here on the south coast it’s “flat” but you still have railway bridges (pretty steep!) and, even worse, the WIND. The Dutch, of course, also have a lot of wind to cycle into, being a mostly-flat country. If it ever gets too steep, people are quite capable of getting off and walking (many do on the railway bridges around here): the bicycle is still useful for carrying things, and can be ridden easily down hills!

  12. Paul M says:

    In another life, when I was doing evening classes for my Institute of Marketing exams, I recall that one of the basic tenets of marketing was to identify a need, and then work out how to fulfil it. “Need” of course wasn’t restricted to food, water and air. It could be the need for respect, recognition, approval etc.

    Anyway, working then in the sector I quickly came to the conclusion that the reality was that you develop a product, and then figure out how to persuade people that they “need” it, because all the real needs have long since been identified and products to satisfy them developed. There was even an American film satire on this – an ad agency develops a liqueur chocolate which packs the punch of a triple Martini, and then they have to figure out a way of persuading people why they need to buy this product.

    So, in a sense, it is not about whether there is a demand for utility bicycles or not. We simply don’t know, although we might guess that the answer is No – Not Until You Provide Me With Somewhere Safe To Ride It. But I guess it suits the industry and the retail sector to major on imitation mountain bikes and road racers, largely for the reasons you state around accessories, but also because they have planned obsolescence – the bike rusts away in a shed for a few years, and then you sell them another one when they start to feel guilty and dig it out, thinking it doesn’t look very “cool” any more. In many ways, they tell us what we want.

    Perhaps it also explains why cycle manufacturers, with a handful of honourable exceptions, don’t lobby for improved road conditions for cyclists the way the motor industry lobbies “on behalf of” motorists – they don’t expect them to have much need of this when they either stuff the purchase in a shed and forget about it, or they carry it on the back of their 4×4 to a “country park” to ride around a signed trail.

    To be fair, the two chainstores I encounter, Halfords and Evans, do have some residual catalogue space for utility bikes, selling some Pashleys as well as some slightly cheaper alternatives, including Halfords’ own classic bicycle range and the Pendleton range, but I don’t think I have ever seen anything of this sort on display in a branch. You have to leaf through the book in the shop, or go on-line, to find them. Even then, the cheaper ones keep their prices down by omitting stuff like hub dynamo lights.

    I do wonder whether the manufacturers of utility bikes should do more to market their products, because in the three places where I see the highest density of cycling for travel, ie London, Portsmouth and Gosport, the great majority of both commuter and utility cyclists are going round on unsuitable machines – mountain bikes with heavy tyres, supermarket carrier bags precariously balance on each handlebar, etc. That must be at least partly because no-one has alerted them to the fact they have a choice.

    • kruidig meisje says:

      And Halfords in NL has a broad range of cheap utility bikes. Would it be difficult for the GB division to order these or also offer them in GB stores?

      • Chris says:

        Halfords in the UK and the Netherlands are, I believe, completely unconnected companies, although I assume they must’ve had some sort of common link initially.

  13. Corey says:

    Things are much the same here in the US. While there are a few importers of European city bikes in places like New York or San Francisco, it’s nearly impossibly to get anything used. It took me over a year to come across my Pashley.

    I think it’s market-driven. Transportation cycling has hardly ever existed in our culture, so it was mostly racing or mountain bikes that were produced. Now that this is the backbone of the industry, manufacturers have continued their business model to meet the new (slight) increase in cycling rates. I think it would take a substantial uptick in mode share to facilitate a market shift.

    There are certainly some whose daily activities require a faster road or touring bike, but they are a minority of a minority. I think the objective is to attract the masses to cycling and the majority of their trips are much shorter. Not to mention that 15 miles with no infrastructure is much different than 15 miles on a cyclepath with bike priority.

    I live in a hilly neighborhood with temperatures well over 30 degrees C. I find that my Sturmey 5-speed hub is enough to spin at a moderate pace with no perspiration. Add a Shimano Nexus 8 or a Nuvinci and you wouldn’t even notice the terrain at all. I usually arrive relaxed and dry, but I observe that cyclists with racing bikes or single-speed bikes are sweaty and out of breath. Sadly, though, it’s the lack of bike infrastructure that generally compels people to ride uncomfortably fast.

    • Robert says:

      I can say from living in the US that it is the same way with Danish bikes as Dutch. You can find them if you know where to look in Boston, NYC, San Fransico, Washington D.C, and a few other like places. It is really hard, though.

  14. Chris R says:

    Interesting post. I’m currently looking for a new bike, and having used hire bikes (by NextBike, while abroad) I’ve got used to having a step-through and metal basket (just because I’m a man doesn’t mean I want a crossbar and don’t have shopping!), pedal backwards to brake and a comfortable riding position. No exposed chain, 3 gears, no hassle.

    I would love to buy something similar, but nothing I can see here (in a physical shop) appears to come close. The low modal share, even for the shortest journeys, highlighted on this and other blogs, shows a need for practical bikes.

    • Fred says:

      I was looking for something and considered these guys. I have no idea of the quality though: http://www.dutchie.co.uk

      Ended up getting a Charge Plug 3, fitting rack & mudguards (which was much much much more difficult than I was expecting and means I have to remove *everything* on the back of the bike to remove the rear wheel due to horizontal dropouts). Not what you’re looking for, due to no step through. I considered a chain guard but that was getting even more complicated.

  15. fonant says:

    Quite agree. For my 40th birthday (five years ago!) I was given a £450 Batavus roadster, complete with all the equipment such as integral lock and lights, full chaincase, hub gears and brakes. I can jump on it and go whatever I’m wearing, without needing to search high and low for lights, lock, trouser clips, etc. and because all the oily and dirty bits are enclosed the bike and I stay nice and clean. Easier than the car, in fact, as the bike’s keys are captive when it’s unlocked in the garage, while the car keys often wander off to special hiding places…

    I did have my eye on a £1,200 Dawes Galaxy touring bike, the sort of thing I used to ride thousands on miles on. But the Batavus is so much more useful!

    I bought it from the Littlehampton Dutch Bike shop, a wonderful place with a wide range of practical machines for urban utility cycling. The shop is doing very well, as word gets around that there _are_ still “old-fashioned” sensible bikes for sale, and has opened a second shop in Hove.

    I understand that the larger Halfords are starting to stock sensible bikes too?

  16. monchberter says:

    Good analysis. In the past year i’ve migrated from a hybridized MTB (the archetypal average UK commuter) with all sorts of additions (mudguards, lights, computer, slicks, pannier rack, SPDs, locks) all in all cost much more than the £250 I spent on the bike a good 8 years ago.

    I came to the conclusion end of last year that indeed all this gear was limiting. The function of the bike itself was such that I had to get togged up in shorts if I wanted to get anywhere (MTB groupsets don’t really allow for chainguards). Subsequently I moved to a Brompton for my 7 mile commute and found it no slower, and I could do the trip with luggage mostly in my office clothes, and I no longer needed to cart around a few Kgs of lock.

    For the Brompton itself i’ve shelled out for a luggage rack, and lights, but that’s about it. My poor old hybrid is sitting sadly underused and i’m now the owner of a lot of very much redundant cycling gear!

  17. jimjwright says:

    Great point.

    It’s even worse than you suggest. I ride a bike and occasionally need to do so in a suit, for example to commute to a train station to attend a meeting. I needed all the Dutch bike qualities you mention, mudguards, chain guard etc. All the larger shops said they had no real solution. I could find only one UK manufacturer and sadly they were not able to offer an internal hub with a sufficient ratio (I only wanted an 8 speed) as I live in a relatively hilly urban environment.

    After much research I bought a Dutch style bike (although not from a dutch bike company) but went for the brand I did largely because it was the one of the very few I could easily test ride. I love the bike to bits but wish I’d had more choice of supplier (thought they were brilliant) and/or readily available makes to choose from.

    My research, locating supplier and awaiting delivery in all took 6 months. That’s a huge obstacle to avoiding the need for me to use a car.

    • Fred says:

      Tell us who it is! 🙂

      • jimjwright says:

        In terms of what, a Pilen special, wonderful bike from Sweden made by a family company. In terms of who, from There Cycling who were brilliant. In terms if who was poor; the list is too long to mention!

        • Fred says:

          Thanks – the Pilen looks like a nice bike, I’ll remember this for the next time someone wants a traditional type bike.

  18. Richard says:

    There’s a 4th reason you forgot to mention, and that’s fashion. Just as with clothes, people like to buy bikes that they like the look of, and that express something of their personality. And as with clothing, sometime people prefer to suffer for their fashion. Hence why so see so many people riding in the wet without mudguards – it’s not that they can’t afford to add them, it’s that they don’t want to spoil the look of their bike.

    I’ve noticed here in Dublin that, as the number of cyclists has increased, so the type of bike they ride is starting to change. The roads are no longer dominated by lycra-clad sports cyclists, and there are more and more utility bikes around. Female cyclists in particular seem to be leading the change towards practical upright dutch-style bikes which allow them to wear normal clothes.

    Of course, there will always be sporty cyclists who want to do their 30 mile commute as fast as possible, and will keep their road bikes. But I agree with you that for the rest of us, where speed and distance aren’t great, the more practical bikes you advocate are the best bet.

    I recently bought a myself second bike, after riding a sporty hybrid for a few years. But unlike a lot of people, who talk about upgrading to faster and lighter bikes, I bought a slower and more upright bike from a UK company called Bobbin, and I couldn’t be happier.

  19. Adam Ef says:

    One of the bike shops I work in promotes and tries to steer people towards choosing practical bikes. We always recommend mudguards, lights etc and have had one fully equipped “dutch” city bike in stock for over a year now. No one wants it. In the time that it’s been there and we’ve tried to sell it (or similar style) to people we’ve hand tens of people in asking about fast road bikes to commute on. When we recommend they go for something with mudguards and a pannier rack to be able to carry things on their commute they aren’t interested. A few times we’ve managed to get people to compromise with and Audax bike with mudguard clearances and rack mounts (but neither fitted as standard and they don’t choose to add them) but more often than not they leave still wanting the latest fast road bike and don’t buy from us.

    In summary, it’s not always the decision of the bike shops that is at play, for some reason everyone wants a bike that isn’t right for them, and you can’t make people buy something they don’t want to.

  20. About 6 years ago I got questioned why I was carrying my lights for my bike around with me during the day, which was just in case I was out late. At which point I decided my future bikes would have them so that it was no longer an issue.

    Now I can sometimes be snappy when I get a load of people letting me know my back light is on, yet there’s nothing I can do about it as it’s the stand light that’s keeping it on.

    I really don’t understand why there’s so few bikes with lights built in, mud guards, or chain cases etc in Britain. When I’ve commented it in the past, other cyclists have just said why would you want something like that on a bike?

    • Simon Hewison says:

      My electric-assist bike is dutch-style (but taiwanese), when I was in the market for an electric bike, I had the choice between one with mudguards, lights, hub gears, chain case, or one which was lighter, had derailleur gears, but only had half the electric range, and cost £50 more.

      The one I chose isn’t perfect : the front light isn’t quite bright enough, the rear light has a motion sensor to turn itself off when the bike isn’t in use – and it turns itself off far too readily, the rack doesn’t fit standard panniers, and the electric regenerative braking is a joke (need to press button to engage it, and it can’t put enough load on the motor to be useful).

  21. Sara says:

    I’m going through all this at the minute. I’ve been commuting/touring on successive mountain / hybrid bikes for 15 years.
    I’ve recently realised that I’d much prefer an upright bike. Internet research is leading me to 8 speed hub gears, but there are no local bike shops that stock such a bike that I can try. As I live at the top of a very long, steep hill I’m not prepared to buy a bike that may not get me home, so I’m stuck in the derallier trap, as thats all my LBS stock. It may not be practical, ut at least I know it’ll get me there.

    • smsm1986 says:

      I found the 8 speed hub gear to work well on hills, partly as you can change gear while stopped which you need when doing a hill start. You can also change the gearing by putting a larger sprocket on the back and/or smaller on the front to make it easier going up hills, thus there is a solution if you find the standard gearing to not work for the hills around you.

    • Richard says:

      Both my bikes have hub gears (one an 8-speed and the other a 5-speed) and I wouldn’t buy anything else – simply for the reason that you can change gears when stationary.

  22. Imogen says:

    I ride a Pashley Princess Sovereign and as I don’t have a car I use it for pretty much everything- commuting, shopping, visiting friends, just getting out and about for leisure. I am hardly the most physically fit person around and I live in Devon so hills are a fact of life, but I find the five speed hub is perfectly good enough most of the time, and when it’s not it doesn’t kill me to get off and push. The detriment of not being able to get up every single hill I encounter is far outweighed by the benefits of having a tough, comfortable bike that performs the same come rain or shine, that I can carry shopping or my work bag or anything else I fancy on, and that is probably going to last for the rest of my life. It was more expensive up-front than a BSO or a hybrid, but the investment in quality will always pay off.

    It’s sad that Pashley are really the only British manufacturer still making genuinely practical utility bicycles, but I am hopeful that the popularity of such bikes is growing- a few weeks ago I saw a chap on a Christiania tricycle ferrying his children to school, which was a wonderful sight!

  23. Reblogged this on softypedals and commented:
    I enjoyed reading this so much I thought it deserved my first ‘reblog’. Now where do I get me one of those Dutch style bikes? 😉

  24. Fred says:

    It amazes me both that most bikes don’t have this stuff, but also how hard it can be to actually fit the legal number of lights and reflectors in visible places on smaller (especially ladies’) bikes, or put the D lock in a place which is out of the way on a step through frame. It’s almost like the designers weren’t expecting that.

    It also shocks me that fairly critical equipment can be unreliable: I paid extra for a cycle helmet with a built in light at the back, which wasn’t in any way waterproof, stopped working and started dripping battery acid! Maybe it only works if you don’t use it.

    Bike should be designed and built ready to go, not with quick release on ‘urban’ bikes because wheels are overrated!

  25. Extremely good and thought-provoking article. I had two things to add:

    1) It strikes me that Boris Bikes seem to tick all your criteria for Dutch bikes
    Built in lights? Yes.
    Protected bike chain? Yes.
    Solid wheels? Yes.
    Space for a bag? Yes.
    Is increasing Boris Bike use then contributing to shifts in cycling culture away from a ‘sporty’ or aggressive approach to more Dutch style segregated cycling?

    2) You mention that you’ve had your Dutch bike for years. Not only is it durable, it’s not really worth nicking. Seems the bike industry don’t really have an economic incentive for selling either a durable bike or one that isn’t worth nicking… then they can only sell you one. So instead they put their money into plugging aggressive, fast, expensive, maintenance heavy bikes that can only be worn with lycra?

  26. Forgot to also add on similarities of Boris Bikes and typically Dutch bikes:
    Built-in lock? Yes, of sorts; when you put the bike in a docking station it becomes un-stealable.
    Easy riding position? Yes.
    Virtually unnecessary (and impossible) to perform self-maintenance? Yes.
    Hub gears? Yes.
    Mudguards? Yes.

  27. farrbott says:

    I agree with all you have to say, I have a city hybrid with everything on it as you describe. However the stuff is some of the fun like other hobbies such as photography, fishing, etc.

    • Marianne says:

      Tell me where did you get your city hybrid? It seems to be the answer! Dutch bikes are fab having everything but are also quite expesive!

  28. velorichard says:

    I think you probably hit the nail on the head with infrastructure. A couple of months ago I tried a couple of family bikes (I bloged about them here: http://velorichard.wordpress.com/2013/05/29/family-bikes-and-why-we-dont-own-one ). They looked to be excellent bikes for urban/suburban riding and I could easily see my daughters and I doing a 14 mile round trip to town on one. They weren’t especially slow either. So I wondered, why we didn’t have one? Nothing to do with availability (although they’re not the sort of bike you could walk into most bike shops and buy), I came to the conclusion our infrastructure just doesn’t accommodate and isn’t welcoming enough for that sort of bike. I suspect the same is true for your dutch bikes. As you suggest our traffic free routes often tend to off-road mtb trail quality and cycle often resemble obstacle courses!

  29. I think one advantage of having to buy all the extras on top of buying the bike is that you can choose the accessories you want to go with your bike. Some people prefer to ride with a rucksack, so they’d have no need for a rack but maybe they’d like mudguards. I prefer using panniers so I do need a rack. I like being able to make my bike my own, rather than having to fit my needs to what comes with the bike.

    Similarly everyone has different riding styles and uses their bikes for different things. I have a middle of the road hybrid, which suits me for commuting, pootling, longer riding and the odd bit of off-roading. I’ve often thought about trying out a Dutch style bike but the weight of it puts me off.Without actually having tried cycling on one, my feeling is that it would be slower and harder to manouevre through traffic. If we had better infrastructure and more segregated cycleways then I would consider it, as I wouldn’t feel like I needed to keep up with the traffic.

    One final point – I’ve never thought of integral locks as particularly secure. What’s to stop someone from coming along and lifting your bike into the back of a van? Here in London, even if I did have a bike with an integral lock I would probably still want to lock it to something, which would mean having to carry a separate lock.

    • I guess you need to try a Dutch bike for yourself. They are slower, but that doesn’t really matter. They’re just comfortable and fun to ride; you’re upright, and relaxed. It’s like riding while sitting on a sofa. But I can obviously understand why they’re not perfect for British streets; you certainly can’t accelerate hard on one.

      When it comes to integral locks, well, they’re not designed as the sole lock for the bike. They’re only supposed to used for storing your bike briefly on the street while you pop into a shop, for instance, or while you’re sitting nearby having a beer. The Dutch lock up their bikes for longer periods with chains, typically.

      • Chris says:

        Would you really leave a bike on the streets in London without securing it to a fixed object even for a couple of minutes? I certainly wouldn’t!

  30. dave says:

    I commute on a high end mountain bike because every other kind of bike I’ve tried (including a cheap mtb) got destroyed by the potholes and kerbs. Also it means I don’t need another bike for weekends in the hills.

  31. stripymoggie says:

    Excellent post. Someone said Dutch bikes are unsuited for hilly terrain. I live in County (Up and) Down and my 7-speed Bakfiets (which is a Dutch bike overdosing on size and load capacity) copes admirably well. I grew up in the Dutch south east where the landscape is not flat, and there are short vicious inclines. Most people still use either a single or three speed bike and get about fine.
    I do have hybrid for my summer commute which is quick, but not very practical. My next bike is a Dutch bike and that bike will probably last me until my commuting days are done.

    • Magic Bullet says:

      Sorry, but where you come from (South Limburg), cycling percentages are the lowest of the NL, readily below 10%. In Vaals, with the highest hill in the NL, a true competitor of the Mount Everest with 323m, cycling has dropped to 3%, very comparable to the UK (2%).

      That you are cycling is good, but unfortunately, doesn’t say anything about the masses. Most people think that any bike does not cope with hills at all.

      • stripymoggie says:

        I’m from *North* Limburg where altitude ranges between 5 and 45m above sea level. The landscape is characterised by sediments eroded by the action of the Maas leaving the place gently rolling with some lung-exploding short inclines. Some of these (the Kaldenkerkerweg in Venlo) are busy with cyclists, especially on VVV matchdays. In height and gradient the Kaldenkerkerweg incline is not dissimilar to one on my regular commute into Belfast. Nowadays ebikes are very popular, but in my day bikes were sold with a small petrol engine mounted on the front wheel to assist with the “hills”.

  32. Magic Bullet says:

    The Dutch city bike is actually a British/American invention dating back as far as 1895, called a roadster. Nowadays, still almost nothing is Dutch about it; except that the not-so-Dutch frame is assembled in the NL. All the add-ons are imported. Apart from the key features (it cycles), it is not sturdy. Practically any add-on breaks or snaps off within a few years (lights, bells, hand breaks, carriers, saddles etc). Simply because Sturmey Archer, Shimano and Brooks do have a slightly different use in mind than the Dutch city environment. The robustness can be much better, but the point is, the Dutch don’t bother about their bikes at all and don’t want to spend money on it. Appearently, the British did bother about the roadster. They threw into the bin and replaced this old-fashioned machine (their own invention) by cars.

    Hills? Yes, you slow down considerably uphill on a Dutch bike. Quickly (a 100m climb with a bit of headwind) beyond the point that it is useless to take a bike – one could better take a walk.

    If anybody starts to use the words ‘short distances in The Netherlands’ and ‘a useful railway system’, and the series on Dutch Cycling on my own blog is complete. One can read there that, eg. supermarkets are much closer to homes in The Netherlands than in the UK. If a Dutchman would live in the UK, he would take a car to the supermarket, just because supermarkets are too far away. Alike, he would quickly become frustrated about the British railway system – and grab a car to go to work instead.


  33. Toby says:

    I wrote about this last year after a trip to Oxford; http://estudio27architects.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/practicalities-and-functionalities.html
    My take there was less about the ride speed or weight or anything like that, but just the storage logistics that means bikes are left out in the rain. Cheap ones rust, especially the poor old exposed chain and gears. Perhaps the market will gradually shift as (hopefully) purchasers become more savvy?

  34. paul gannon says:

    ‘Magic bullet’ on his website offers answers to his own question as to why we can never boost cycling numbers in the UK.

    “The short answer to the question why a cyclists lobby will never be successful in e.g., the UK and many other countries has to do with the very nature of lobbies in democracy. They are only successful if it concerns:
    1- a lot of people
    2- a high (future) economical value. In a democracy any lobby not concerning the two above, just get bits and pieces.”

    It’s not clear whether you have to be both or whether just one of these criteria will suffice (unfortunately ‘magic bullet’ doesn’t bother to say). But anyway this is not really very perceptive and, lacking any relation to real life instances, is nothing more than Daily Mail style opinion.

    One could cite many examples of lobbies that do involve lots of people and/or have ‘high economic value’ – but which don’t succeed. Also it is possible to think of lobbies that fail to meet ‘magic bullet’s’ iron laws of lobbying success but which do succeed – right to roam legislation and gay marriage legislation to take a couple of recent examples. The right to roam lobby was no bigger than the UK cycling lobby and had very low economic value (possibly even negative value if the costs are weighed against any actual increase in tourist spending over what would have happened anyway with the pre-existing extensive rights of way system.

    It’s easy to make a bald assertion, but real life is more complex than ‘magic bullet’ appreciates. There is no magic bullet solution, but change is possible.

    I back the ‘Go Dutch’ label, but we needn’t be tied down by it. My favourite piece of cycling matter is a table from an OECD report showing cycling levels in the Netherlands, Finland and Denmark as well as the UK. Not only did Finland and Denmark, as well as the Netherlands, have higher cycling levels than the UK, but all three of those countries had more older and more younger cyclists in their cyclist age profiles and, crucially, a balance of the genders. The UK had far fewer cyclists and they were nearly all YAMs (young adult males).

    I could never get any real interest in these vital statistics within the LCC. The argument that our cycling environment is a deeply sexist one could be a powerful one for us. However, the point here is that we don’t need to re-create the Netherlands in its entirety here in the UK. What we want/need to do is to develop the case for sufficient attractive cycling infrastructure that we can move towards a Danish or Finnish situation where there are many more women, older and younger cyclists – even it we don’t reach the same gross pro rata proportion of cyclists levels as the Netherlands.

    What we can realistically conceive of doing is getting some serious infrastructure in place which will show that cycling can be stimulated – the Camden cycle tracks are minimalist examples of this. This will lead to an increase in the size and effectiveness of cycling lobby, which in turn can get in more projects and attract more cyclists, and so on. This is how change happens. “Magic bullet’ has no concept of social change.

    ‘Magic bullet’ also provides on his blog site a ‘longer’ answer. Unfortunately it is no more illuminating than the short one, simply consisting of more unsubstantiated assertions in a style that reminds me of the Daily Mail: “At worst, a whole committee is installed, visiting The Netherlands, spending a fortune (where does that money come from? well, from the wallet of the masses),” At worst? What’s wrong with spending money on finding out how to do well something you aim to spend money on installing?

    Another example, apparently one reason we don’t have a cycling culture in the UK is that we:

    “missed the starting gun, somewhere in the seventies (instead, they were listening to Pink Floyd’s 1973 album Dark Side of the Moon, asking themselves whether they were missing one).”

    I’m sure ‘magic bullet’ is a clever, well-read chap (I’m pretty sure he is a chap as he talks about Dutchmen living in Britain, not Dutch people), but he is not omniscient (I was listening to the Clash, not Pink Bloody Floyd!) and his assertions should not be taken too seriously.

    • Magic Bullet says:

      Dear Paul Gannon,

      May I cite you: ‘…and his assertions should not be taken too seriously.’
      Finally somebody is getting a point here. Of course, my view on lobbies is way too cynical in that post, but I’m still afraid that I’m closer to the truth than I want it to be myself.

      What I try to get the British cyclists-blogger community to, is some self reflection and some realism. You’re so d@#^ serious about the whole cycling topic. Every accident is discussed to an almost disgusting level of detail (never the cyclist to blame of course), every ill-designed crossing too. Then there are intense discussions amongst UK cyclists on e.g., whether or not to have separated cycle paths. This is not going to help the UK cyclists at all.

      My message is: Get real, there’s only 2% of cycling in Britain. That’s considerably less than there are gay people (check out Wiki on homosexuality). Now, ask any gay about the level of social acceptance of homosexuals and you will still recognize most of my points. I think the gay-marriage is a major step forwards, but how many men did you ever see walking hand-in-hand on the British streets? Let alone kissing?

      So, only 2% cycling and then those cyclists completely disagree about everything they want for cycling infrastructure or what they want as a bike. Still they’re surprised that nobody’s listening to them. LOL. UK cyclists are my daily episode from Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

      Next, I get the funniest pieces of misconception to read. Having a flat country doesn’t matter. Short distances don’t matter. The Netherlands are not different from the UK. Well they are. We cycle, you don’t. You invented cycling, we did not. Yet, we outcycle you already for over 100 years (at least since 1911 to be a bit more exact). Isn’t that weird? May be, just a suggestion, it might be interesting to have a further look at some deeper reasons why.

      Of course one could learn a few things from the Dutch situation, but it’s rubbish to think that if one just copies bikes or infrastructure and then dumps it into another country, that one would get the same results (yet another great misconception).

      That’s the real simplified view on the world.

  35. I would endorse what paul gannon wrote about Magic bullet’s thesis. Magic bullet has lots of interesting ideas on his blog, but to suggest that Holland is totally unique and there is nothing to be learned from the Dutch experience that can be applied to anywhere else, is to dramitically overstate the point.

    On the question of population density and cycling as raised by Magic Bullet, the Great Western Greenway in Co Mayo is Ireland’s longest segregated cycleway at 42 km. It was built for tourists and amenity, but a recent study by Trinity College School of Engineering found that even in January and December there are over “100 users” a day on it. These are not tourists in the dead of winter but local people using it for commuting. There are also definite morning and late afternoon/evening peaks in traffic. Co Mayo has a population density of only 19.9 per sq kilometre, and a lot of that population lives in the east of the county. So west Mayo where the greenway is has a population density much less than 19.9 per sq km (a lot less than the 404 per km² of Holland). It is also a very windy place and it rains a lot.

    The Greenway has only been opened for three years, yet already over 100 local people a day are using it for commuting. This number will only grow as time goes by. If a segregated cycleway in remote, windy, rainy rural Co Mayo will attract commuters, I think it will probably do so anywhere in Europe. There are plans now for many more long distance segregated cycleways in Ireland, I would expect to see the rates of Irish cycle commuting rising dramitically in the next few years.



    • Magic Bullet says:

      A 100 daily users on a 42km track. I’m deeply impressed. The costs of that track must have been about 10.000.000 euro (250/m), with a 400.000 annual maintenance (1 new asphalt layer per 10yrs), estimate based on numbers calculated by the city of The Hague. Without tourism, that would have been totally unaffordable.

      Good luck defending your proposals at the Ministry of Finance and then I refer back to my post on lobbies.

      Don’t get me wrong on this. I think it’s very good that people start to cycle more, and a 100 daily users seems a massive improvement (provided it has come from nothing). Also, I do like cycle paths. But life isn’t that simple as you might suggest. The one and only reason of that cycle path was and is tourism. Commuting was and is a side effect. A good one, but still a side effect that cannot sustain on its own.

      • The building cost of the Great Western Greenway was 5.7 million euros, the annual maintenance cost is 40,000 euros. The cycleway was built on the track bed of an abandoned railway line. The surface is very fine compressed gravel, not asphalt.

        You are right this cycleway would never have been built for commuters, but when it was built no one suspected that there would be any commuters on it, in such a remote rural area. Yes just over 100 users a day is small, but this is one of the most sparsely populated areas of rural Ireland, and unlike Holland the distances between homes, shops, workplaces and schools are big. And the weather is not particularly conducive to cycling.

        I would also suspect that the number of commuters will grow with time. Irish people are driving a lot less than they did five years ago, car sales are plummeting, as is motor fuel consumption. More and more Irish people can no longer afford to run a car. In recent years the number of people cycling in Ireland has exploded, admittedly from a very small base, but the trend is clear.

        There is no problem defending the proposal with the Irish finance department, they have already approved initial funding for the planning phase of at least 700 km of new segregated rural cycleways. Most of the new cycleways will also be on abandoned railway lines (we have a lot of them in Ireland) but many of them will be in much more densely populated parts of Ireland and will have much bigger numbers of commuters than in remote Mayo.

        There is no problem in Ireland lobbying for cycleways, Mayo County Council who built the Great Western Greenway have proved the concept works in remote rural areas, now every county is Ireland is crying out for cycleways, the rush to build them is on. The prime motivation in rural areas is tourism but towns and cities all over the country are also beginning to build segregated urban cycleways. If the thing shakes out, the way it looks now, within a decade Ireland will have a major nationwide segregated cycle network. So much into cycleways are the Irish Government and Finance Department that there is a plan being worked on right now to link all the major cities in the country with cycleways. If in 10 years these cycleways are abandoned and covered in weeds I will have to concede that you were right. Only time will tell.


        • some dutch guy says:

          You claim: “and unlike Holland the distances between homes, shops, workplaces and schools are big. ”
          I’m interested in the one about schools. As David Hembrows has claimed, several people in the Netherlands do 16+ km to high school and 16 km back to home every school day. Are the distances greater in Ireland? I personally know people who do or did about 12 to 15 km one way to school.

          • It depends on where in Ireland, about one third of the Irish population is in the greater Dublin area, so around Dublin is densely populated and schools tend to be closer. I was writing about rural Mayo which is a very big and sparsely populated area. In many places in the west of Ireland kids travel long journeys to school, not by bike, but by car and bus.

          • So it’ll be easy to persuade you now 🙂 x


  36. Magic Bullet says:

    Dear Kevin,
    Thanks for your explanation. I do hope you’re right. What I appreciate about your explanation is the way it describes how different the approach is that the Irish took to promote cycling. They did not just copy the Dutch situation. They came up with their own solution, and quite a creative one. By using old railway tracks, the investment costs were cut in half. By choosing gravel (the Dutch would be very negative about that) they kept maintenance costs to 10pct. Next push is a negative one: an economical down turn. Dutch cycling is economically quite indifferent, as cycling is not associated to poverty. On the contrary, cycling is associated to highly educated, rich people. So, the question is how many cyclists remain in Ireland when things will improve economically. If they will cycle more and more indeed, then the cyclepaths will improve, and finally, there might come an upward spiral to decent cycling levels, eg comparable to parts in Germany or Skandinavia. NL will stay out of reach I expect, for the very reasons as described on my blog.

  37. What a lot of bike geeks in these comments, who have memories that don’t extend past their last trip to their road bike shop.

    ”In the late 19th century, large numbers of women were already using bicycles to get to work, women office workers and shop assistants wending their way each weekday morning from the suburbs to the town. They found the bicycle a convenient form of transport for distances up to, say, ten miles”.
    John Woodeforde’s ”The Story of the Bicycle”, 1970

    Bicycles on hills. Bicycles in hot climates. Cold climates. All used to be normal. All over the world. Still is. Unless you’re glued to misconception.

  38. Magic Bullet says:

    Dear Mikael,
    As compared to the 19 th century, there’s a small addition in traffic nowadays, called a car. Not only that, people tend to use it, especially since they can afford it. Don’t you think it’s weird that the rich countries with the highest bike use (1-NL and 2-DK) are A- flat (NL is flattest). B- have a mild climate (NL is mildest) C-have small cities with short distances. D- have a too small population for a strong national car industry E-outcycle other countries already for 100 years or more? A-E are definitely factors with a slightly longer history than my last cycle trip (this evening). So, the ‘still is’, is your misconception, I think. People still cycle, but it’s nothing compared to the pre-car era. This is especially true for countries like US, UK, FR, which have factors A-E quite opposite from NL and DK.

  39. Bedhead says:

    I have several bikes, but for commuting I mostly use my Corratec 8 speed, with 8 Speed Nexus hub, coaster brake (and V) on the back, mudguards, dynahub etc, or my Kona Ute for when I need to carry huge amounts of stuff. I geared the Corratec down with a larger rear spocket as sometimes I have a long climb to a shed I rent, I also tow a trailer. I now use 8th gear frequently on the flat, beforehand It was never used, In the last 18 months it has had they tyres changed to Marathon+ as the rear wheel is a pig to get on and off at the roadside, a set of pads front and rear and a new chain to accommodate the larger sprocket. Oh, and the rear light needed wiring up after the wires in the mudguard failed. That bike cost me £249 so there are bargains if you look. I do sometimes take one of the other bikes as they are much faster and lighter, but for getting to work and back, the Corratec cannot be beaten for toughness.

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  41. Danny Yee says:

    I’ve just bought myself a Kettler Spirit, which is pretty much the kind of “Dutch bicycle” you’re talking about (though it has a aluminium frame). My first impressions are written up here http://wanderingdanny.com/oxford/2013/07/kettler-spirit-city-bike-review/ I’m really surprised now that there aren’t more bikes like that around Oxford.

  42. R.J. Debenham says:

    I am so disappointed with the British cycle industry because, a point that is often missed when discussing British bikes is, there is very little recogniition of, and even less provision for the elderly or physically disadvantaged. I had a heart attack about 6 years ago and, due to lack of exercise, have put on a lot of weight which I need to lose. As well as my weight problem, I also have painful knees, and short femurs, which means I cannot pedal through 360 degrees without considerable discomfort. I believe somewhere in the past 30 years or so, the British bike industry changed bike geometry, they started producing bikes with a more vertical rear tube, whilst, at the same time, raising the bottom bracket further off the ground. These two changes alone have had a detrimental effect on my ability to find a bike I can ride in comfort. I have been looking at the possibility of buying a semi recumbent bike, because the more laid back position of the seat in relation to the pedals would probably help in my case, but this country doesn’t seem to make them. The Dutch and the Americans make “step through recumbents”, but they are very expensive. There must be tens of thousands of elderly people, like me who need to ride, but can’t manage on modern bikes. Time for the British bike industry to get its act together.

  43. Nick says:

    As an Australian having visited London and Amsterdam recently I would like to make a few comments.
    – I was absolutely terrified driving a car in London, Bath, Stratford and everywhere in between, there is no way I would ride a bike of ANY description in downtown London. Everyone seems to speed, drive aggressively, and generally just tries to kill each other on narrow confusing winding roads.
    – The tube in London comes almost every time you walk down the stairs and is very fast, trumping most bike commutes by probably half an hour each way. Compare this with 20+ minute waits for trains in Australia.
    -There are no “straight modern freeway” type roads in England, these arterial roads in Holland, Sydney, Perth, Brisbane have safe bikeways running alongside them allowing people to commute the BULK of their journey at 35km/h on a roadbike or still 20km/h on a dutchie. The country is too old, too many people and it is very difficult to put this type of infrastructure in place now, out of everywhere i’ve been in the world the only place worse for roads is Jakarta, thank heavens for the tube it is incredible and no metro anywhere in the world comes close I reckon.

  44. Simon says:

    I just made a post on the Guardian’s bike blog which is effectively a shorter version of your post above. And then I came across this blog …

    I’ve just come back from a week in the Netherlands and the whole family hired bikes and just jumped on every day in (shock, horror) normal clothes. Swimming kit strapped to the rack on the back. Key in the lock and just a quick click at the other end to relock.

    In the UK, I ride my road bike in padded shorts, carry locks and lights (which I have to remove when parked up so they don’t get stolen), a rucksack, etc. Not forgetting the near obligatory helmet (the Dutch smiled slightly patronisingly when I asked for helmets for my young children).

    I do have a Brompton which I use for commuting (in normal clothes and sans helmet) but I need to buy my wife a bike soon as her last got stolen a few years ago and, due to young kids and a dog, she has done very little cycling in the meantime. And I’m getting her a Dutch bike. Even though we live in the hilly South Downs, I think it will have the gear range to cope, sturdy enough to do the little “off roading” you tend to do with young kids – i.e. trails not proper off-road. It will be low maintenance and be massively practical day to day – which will mean it gets used much more …

    I’ve no idea why such bikes have become so unfashionable in the UK but I think it contributes to the us and them culture with cyclists – i.e. cycling is seen as a sport which you do rather than a beautifully efficient means of getting from A to B (where B is only a few miles from A …). If we had bikes which you could jump on and off with a minimum of fuss in normal clothes then we would use them a lot more. It would mean bikes weren’t seen as some odd subculture but as utterly normal – as normal as walking. Bring it on!

  45. Peter Clinch says:

    There is a place for the sportier bike as practical transport. My kids commute 2.5 km to school and back each day, and the way home has ~ 50m of ascent including some steep sections. They use Islabikes Beinns with 8 speed derailleurs, and they use the whole range and benefit from the light weight of the bikes. The route would not be practical on a Puky, however nice a Puky may be on flatter routes.
    I use hub gears around here, but for that sort of range they weight more and cost significantly more, neither of which are desirable on an already fairly expensive bike that the kids will grow out of sooner rather than later and despite Islabikes’ high resale value would still make them prohibitive for a lot of people, and up a steep hill with immature legs weight is weight and relative inefficiency is still bad too.
    Interestingly their previous Beinn 20s were sold on to a chap in Belgium, who couldn’t find anything like them over there. You either went for minimalist sports of maximalist utility, and something a bit sporty, light and well made with good mudguards and a proper carrying rack was apparently not to be found there!

    “The second reason accounts for why the mountain bike is still the most popular bike in Britain. Namely – if you want to ride away from motor vehicles – as the vast majority of people do – then you pretty much have to have a mountain bike. Trails and bridleways are not at all easy to ride on any other kind of bike.”
    This is the same as your “third reason, it isn’t one in itself. Cyclo cross dates from around the start of the 20th Century, roughly 70 years before MTBs were invented, and the Rough Stuff Fellowship have been doing (and still do) variously silly values of off-road on touring bikes since 1955. I grew up in the 70s and my peers and I got about on a motley selection of Raleighs and similar, “racers”, Choppers, general purpose bikes. We spent lots of time riding through the local woods on them and I don’t recall it was a problem. And so on… that you “need” a MTB to go off road is just part of the general marketing trend in the leisure industry that you need specialised equipment to do anything, and just as we “need” Goretex and walking boots to dander round the local country park so we “need” a MTB to ride around it.

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  47. Dennis says:

    Same deal in USA – bike shops are dominated by the Lycra and drop bar crowd. Nobody stocks city bikes, and the few that mfrs have put out tend to be either too dorky or too expensive.

    But this is changing! …largely because of young women (like the Lovely Bicycle blogger) who think classic transportation bikes are cool, and companies like http://www.publicbikes.com that have sprung up to give you that same classic look and feel in a reasonably priced brand new bike. Guys have been slower to figure it out, but it’s happening.

    I just ordered a Kettler Berlin Royal — handsomest bike I’ve ever seen, yet beautifully balanced to ride and relentlessly practical to use. But make no mistake, I’m talking to my insurance agent before it arrives: in the US, I think the biggest barrier to people riding bikes for transport isn’t even so much those snooty bike shops or that poor selection or even a lack of infrastructure (we’re actually making good progress with green lanes) so much as it is the unbelievably high rate of bike theft.

  48. Brian says:

    I ride a 50 year old Pashley daily to the railway station and when doing short journeys at weekends covering about 30 miles a week. No special gear very limited maintenance and 3 speed hub gears perfectly suited to environment I use it in. I tend to believe the cycle industry is trying to sell a lifestyle rather than a means of transport similar to how the car industry was in the 1950’s.The adverts for Halfords and Evans all seem to feature the nuclear family cycling at the weekend the type of people who would never even think of riding their new bikes to work school or college My bike gets regular comments like, my grandad had one of them from people putting on or taking off cycling gear while or simply get off or on my bike and carry on. After a while the penny drops that I never miss my train and get home quicker, then the comment becomes how do I get one like that and how much. Trouble is the answer is not easily and £600

  49. Mike Peirson says:

    Myself and my wife have been together for 46 years and have always had bikes for pleasure and freedom, always with us on our caravanning trips. We have had them all. It was a bit sad when I had to give up my racing bike about ten years ago as it was killing my hips to cock my leg my leg over the saddle. We also had so called mountain bikes. Anyway we were in our sixties and decided to get us some Dutch style step thrus. We bought two Peugeot Toulouse 105s. That was in 2002. The bikes weigh a ton with their saddle bags Both weigh 45k together. But when you are on the bikes you do not feel the weight at all. I have also bought a Maxxraxx bike rack for the car. I had to make two false cross bars so the bikes would fit on the rack. It takes about 5 minutes to fit the rack and load the bikes up. They are our mules and we love them. We live in Lydd in the south east of England and it is as flat as a pancake, just right for riding at our age. I have always done any repairs and maintenance on bikes since I was a kid so no worries there. The only work I have done on our bikes in 12 years is new tyres/chains and cables, and a rear cluster on my wife’s bike. We went for a ten mile ride this morning. One day we take the woofers out and the next day we ride our bikes. We have (large) gel saddles. We have North Road handlebars as we were getting back ache on our old bikes with straight or drop handlebars. Lovely bikes.

    Best wishes,

    Mike Peirson.

  50. I used to have a Giant Suxes7 that my local dealer imported from Holland. 7 speed hub gear with mud, suit and chain guards. Hub brakes and comfey seat and handlebars. Heavy but no problem riding around town wearing a suit. Why not have a look at Geoff Apps pages – he designed the perfect all rounder years ago but thanks to Ron Kitching his firm was liquidated before the bike had a chance to become a success. http://clelandcycles.files.wordpress.com/2010/07/dscf7909.jpg http://clelandcycles.wordpress.com/history/

  51. Pingback: Trek World 2014 Highlights | girodilento

  52. Well here’s a thing. I couldn’t manage all 90+ comments left so far, but of the many I’ve read, none have mentioned ebikes. I ride a Raleigh Velo Cite pedelec (ie. no throttle, just pedalling) which is pretty much a Dutch bike in style with hub gears and a solid pannier rack. Weighs a ton, and that’s before you get to the battery! No dynamo lights sadly but it’s getting close to ideal from a practical point of view. And… I commute a 22-mile round trip complete with high traffic roads, quiet paths and everything in between. It takes me about 50 minutes one way, I charge the battery back up at work and I’m good to go again. I bloody love it. That’s not to say I still don’t daydream about some good Dutch cycling infra which would make a lot more people cycle I think, but I can get 3 days’ shopping for a family of 4 in my Vaude panniers and I don’t feel a thing due to the wonderful battery and assist. It makes cycling a complete joy, enables me to do a commute I would never consider otherwise and I think it’s definitely part of the answer to making “transport” – ie. practical, everyday cycling more popular in this country. Hills lose their terror and you can move quickly and get away quickly on busy roads. Ebikes need to come down in price, which hopefully will happen as the technology improves over the next few years and then…. I hope many many more people will discover this wonderful way to get about.

    • Justin says:

      Love the idea of commuting on an e bike. Having just arrived in the UK (London to be specific) I was hoping to get a utility type e-bike for my commute. However I have made a couple of observations that have made me seriously reconsider. They are as follows:
      1. Many bikes parked on the street and stations look like they have been thrown down a set of stairs (a number of times). This is probably because they take severe abuse or are prone to vandalism while they are parked during the day. If they are new or a decent make then they are also liable to get pinched or parts stripped off them. I have noted a number of bikes that have been seriously abused or attacked (rims kicked in etc). Hmm, so why would I want to spend money on something that has a high likelihood of getting trashed? It seems the grubbier the bike, the better off it is, and hence most of bikes I see look the worse for wear, and or have so many stickers and markings to make stealing it that much harder.
      2. E-bikes are rare in London. In three weeks I have not seen one but stopped at as many bike park racks as possible to look. This says to me that there is probably a very good reason why. Good quality e-bikes are quite an investment (2500£+). So to spend this kind of money and then see it get trashed, abused, or stolen does put me off this option. Especially if you leave it parked at a station or bike park zone where the common perception is that e-bikes are a cop-out – you might just get more unpleasant surprises than you bargained for when you come back to it.
      The only option as I see it right now is a brompton or similar with an aftermarket electric hub (see YouTube NYCE Wheels e-brompton). This allows you to take it into the office or home for safekeeping.
      If it wasn’t for this perception I have built over the past 3 weeks I would be commuting on a e bike (whichever felt right) and be a happy chappy.
      At 6’3 I do feel a bit big for a Brompton so I am not moving on anything until I have taken a bit of time to feel more comfortable about things. I also tried a Boris bike and felt that it was very sluggish and gearing was too low.
      I hope I am wrong on a lot of this and that I will find something that works but motorized public transport is clearly at an advantage in my view right now.

  53. jonathan coupe says:

    Dutch bikes are designed for people who live in Dutch cities and have a 4 mile or so commute to work. (Yes, some people ride further but these people are outliers.) Very few of the UK population are in this position, making this entire argument senseless. Dutch bikes are built for conditions that you don’t find in the UK.

    • A high proportion of UK *car* journeys are less than 4 miles, never mind bike trips. Tesco, Asda and Sainsburys make sure that a huge number of us are less than 4 miles from a large supermarket and there are local shops too. Local authorities like to have schools that are less than 3 miles from people’s homes; otherwise they have to provide free buses. Trips to playgroups, churches, doctors’, libraries, restaurants, parks, pubs and friends are all under four miles for many, many people. Quite a lot of people work close to home and down here in the soft south east it’s even fairly flat for a lot of us.
      I wouldn’t buy a Dutch-style bike (actually pretty similar to the cheap, practical and ubiquitous British roadster of years gone by) as an only bike if I wanted to do long, fast commutes or go touring in the hills, audaxing or take it on the train into London in the rush hour or carry it up flights of stairs or store it hanging on the wall, but it certainly deserves a bigger place in UK cycling.

  54. jonathan coupe says:

    Also: those silly integral locks Dutch bikes use rely on a cable that can be snipped with the cheapest pair of bolt cutters. Just because the Dutch do something does not mean that it is smart!

  55. Sure there are places where you need the Fort Knox treatment, but there is nothing to stop you using a D lock too if you want; at least the integral lock and cable/chain is a good start. Some of us are lucky enough that convenience is a good trade off compared with a small extra risk of theft. If I always had to find somewhere that I could correctly attach a D lock (correctly round the frame in a position where it was hard to lever open) and use a chain/cable and remove the front wheel and the saddle lights and panniers and then lug them around with me, then it would often be easier to walk or take the car and it would certainly destroy much of the convenience and joy of cycling. I genuinely feel sorry for people with lovely lightweight bikes who can only park them if they carry a sweaty rucksack with 5kg of locks around everywhere.

  56. Philip Parish says:

    I have long puzzled over why there are so few practical bicycles in the UK. Most bicycles here lack all the appurtenances that make for sensible everyday transport – mudguards, chain guard, suspension, security lock, luggage carrier, lights etc. This means that special clothing for cycling is essential, if one is not to ruin normal clothes with thrown up dirt, water and mud. For going to work or going shopping cycling with standard UK models is just not practical.

    I have come to the conclusion that the reason is that there is very little infrastructure for cycling in the UK, so that cycling is not attractive as an everyday means of transport. There are few dedicated cycle tracks, too many vehicles obstructing the way, too many kerbstones to negotiate and too many dangers from other road users. The is makes cycling more of an “obstacle course”, requiring “off road” type bicycles. And cycle parking facilities at stations and supermarkets are normally sparse or non-existent.

    It is not only in Holland but in many other European countries that most bicycles are of the “roadster” or touring variety, not necessarily as “upright” as in Holland but with all the fittings to make cycling a pleasure in everyday use. In these countries there are often excellent off-road cycle ways and paths, combined with parking racks at railway stations and supermarkets. And “e-bikes” are becoming ever more popular – especially with the older generation and in hilly areas. In Germany local authorities are promoting cycling as a healthy occupation and a way of curbing the ever-increasing traffic flows in congested urban areas. Cologne, for example is planning over 100 miles of dedicated cycle paths to connect with several neighbouring towns.

    Unfortunately our island is already overcrowded, and I do not think it will ever be possible to catch up with best practice in other places. There just isn’t the space available to create new routes dedicated to cycling in our towns and cities.

    So we will just have to muddle along as heretofore.

  57. Claire says:

    Thanks for so much for the article. Everything you have said resonates with me.

    I spent a year in Holland approx 15 years ago and fell in love with cycling. It was liberating to be able to get up and go anywhere you wanted to under your own steam. On my return to the UK I decided that I wanted to continue my love affair with cycling and so headed to the nearest bike shop to have a chat about options. It was a very intimidating experience, full of lycra clad intense cyclists.

    My requirements at the time were for something similar to a Dutch bike, solid but not too heavy, good gearing, pannier rack, mud flaps , something I could cycle in a dress/skirt etc etc. I was basically laughed out of the shop for suggesting something so ridiculous in hilly North London (Finchley). I ended up with a Hybrid which was a lovely bike to cycle but which didn’t really meet requirements and caused me no end of problems: wheels warping whenever I hit a pot hole (and there are plenty around), puncture after puncture, the chain slipping constantly. I spent more time at the bike shop than I did on the road. It got to the point whereby it just wasn’t practical to continue to use the bike because of it’s poor reliability.

    After a break from cycling, I have decided to get back on my bike again. I went to another bike shop and once again was presented with only 1 option: A hybrid (the same one as I had previously). Very frustrating! It’s as if people don’t seem to understand that I want a reliable, low maintenance bike which can cope with the very poor road surface (potholes) but still enable me to navigate the ups and downs of the north London terrain.

    So, as I was getting no where at the bike shops, I have done a bit of research and test ridden many bikes. I have narrowed my search down to the Lekker Bike (a new dutch bike) and the Bobbin Birdie. I have ridden both bikes and I think I am sold on the Lekker bike. The Bobbin bike is lovely but feels much to light and flimsy which is a concern especially as being low maintenance/reliability is a key requirement. The Lekker bike is a good compromise. It’s reasonably light weight, it appears solid/sturdy and good quality, it has internal hub gears (7), is a really lovely ride and the tyres just soak up the bumps in the road (so shouldn’t get destroyed by random potholes). After my experiences with a UK hybrid bike, I can’t wait to get back onto something that will actually get me to where I need to go. Another bonus is that it comes with all the accessories.

    And yes, I am worried about the hill climbs. I just have to remind myself that I used to live in Nijmegen and cycle over to Germany and there were plenty of hills. I coped just fine on my bike (which had no gears) so I am hoping it shouldn’t be an issue. Also, on reflection, I only ever used 6 of the gears on my old Hybrid so I am hoping that means that the 7 gears the Lekker has should suffice.

    I am off to do one more test ride and then purchase.

    Fingers crossed! If you pass me walking up a hill in Barnet, feel free to stop and laugh 🙂

  58. Agitatorofpeople says:

    I restore, ride and sell as a hobby what I would term as “English 3 Speeds” these are the type of bicycle used as transport by the masses before the motor car ruled and were made in England between 1930’s to 1960 by BSA, Rudge, Humber, Hercules, Raleigh, Philips and Sunbeam. Most journeys were generally made around the cities and towns to the place of work, and they were designed to carry heavy loads. So sure of the strength of their machines, some manufacturers such as Hercules offered guarantees of 50 years on the life of the frame!
    Every bicycle came with a full set of steel mudguards, a pump and a saddle tool roll with tools to service the bicycle if needs be. The chain was generally enclosed within a guard to keep the rider and the chain clean, and most came with a sturdy rear rack for your box of goods or a suitcase.
    These are great machines around town, the Sturmey Archer or similar design hubs are reliable easy to use (change gear when you are not moving!) and require minimal maintenance and make riding easier compared to a fixed speed cycle. And a well mechanically restored English bicycle is a lovely thing to ride, the sturdy steel frame and wheel rims with heavy gauge spokes and an upright riding position on a sprung leather saddle, whilst not lightening fast, just glide along, and are capable of been ridden all day long.
    I sold one to somebody with a carbon road bike and a fully suspended MTB, who appreciates the practicality of been able to just hop on, in their everyday clothes and go into town, (with some style and panache I may add) and still find it locked up where they left it, instead of taking the car and paying for parking.
    Incidentally, i recently read of a Copenhagen movement called Cycle Chic a “lycra and granola free site” promoting such bicycles with the slogan “Style over Speed”, they have a manifesto which is funny yet brilliant, infact here is the link http://www.copenhagencyclechic.com/2008/04/cycle-chic-manifesto.html.
    My next project, a 1936 Gents Sunbeam Roadster, patented oil bath chaincase that constantly oils the chain and Sturmey Archer 3 speed with a Dynohub on the front wheel to power the lights….lovely, probably a keeper that one!

  59. Mike Peirson says:

    My wife and I have had our step thrus (Peugeot Toulouse 105s) for 14 years now. Bought them new in 2002. We have had all sorts of bikes from racers to mountain bikes and now because we are in our 70s with dodgy backs have our step thrus. They weigh a ton with the panniers (45k) the pair of them. But once you are on them they just float along no matter what the weight, we call them our mules. I have made false X bars from strong aluminium so we can transport them on the back of the car with a Maxx Raxx carrier which also doubles as my bike repair stand in my workshop. Fortunately where we live on the Romney Marsh in Kent it is very flat. I do all the maintenance and love it. Fitted new tyres and tubes yesterday so we are ready to get going again. We so love the photo above of riding in the Netherlands, right up our street. And we love reading all the articles that people have written. It is so good to see other step thru bikes on our travels instead of the usual hybrids and MTBs. Happy Cycling.

  60. Steve says:

    At the moment, I ride an old green Raleigh superbe and it has served me well for many years. I love the upright riding position, the three speed gears, the north road handlebars also the lovely comfortable Brooks B66 saddle. I use it most days and I have been on some long distance rides on her However age has taken it’s toll and she now needs a major overhaul. New bearings and a front wheel rebuild which I intend to have done. In the meantime I considered buying a Pashley and keeping the Raleigh as well.
    I went to a local dealer to ask about the Pashley, however I did not like the men’s roadster. I very much liked the Pashley princess classic. Three speed hub gears, north road handlebars and a lovely comfortable Brooks B66s saddle. As far as I was concerned, the Pashley princess classic was almost a direct replacement for my Raleigh Superbe, except for the princess being a step thru. Even the frame size was the same.
    The guy in the shop had a real problem with me potentially riding a woman’s bicycle, but I respectfully pointed out that at the age of 63 I’ll ride what I dam well please, so no sale there.
    This week however I drove the 20 miles to Stratford on Avon and the Pashley dealer there. The guy in the shop was only too happy to allow me to take a 22.5 inch frame Pashley princess classic for a test ride. It was a wonderful experience, a very comfortable solid bike and I managed get her up some hills in first gear too. I really enjoyed the ride and I was so impressed I ordered a princess classic there and then. I am puzzled by the first dealers attitude to me wanting a step thru bike at my age, after all, the bike I chose was green and not pink, but I may just pass on the front basket!
    I just love three speed classic roadster bikes, I have ridden them for years and I think I am too old to change now.

  61. Anthony seaborn says:

    I own a Dutch bike which is a joy to ride. It requires a different philosophy to cycling to really appreciate.
    For people to enjoy cycling at any age on any bike our government needs to adopt the Dutch approach to providing bycycle friendly infrastructure,with cycle lanes separated from main roads by barriers. They want us to be greener and pollute less but will not invest in the means to allow us to safely do so.

  62. Steve says:

    I agree entirely Anthony and I don’t see our government embarking on investment in cycle friendly infrastructure anytime soon unfortunately. As it is there are ‘no go’ areas where I would not cycle at certain times of the day. I tend to ride early on Sunday morning and during lulls in traffic during the day (I am retired). In addition, I am fortunate that I live in a rural area where the traffic density is lower. However I shy away from riding in the city centers now due to a combination of increasing vehicle traffic density and my advancing years. As you allude to, there are only a few token, wholly inadequate cycle lanes in urban areas

  63. Chris says:

    I am interested in knowing whether Steve is still happy with his Pashley, I am the same age as you, and like you I am planning on getting a ladies Dutch-style bike. I am dithering over whether to get a Gazelle or a Pashley, or a modern version like a Farrhad. Did you get the Pashley Sovereign or the Classic version, and is the frame size sufficient? I am 6ft tall. I hope you still happy with it.

    • Steve says:

      Chris I collected my new Pashley just over two months ago and I have ridden it pretty much every day since. My bike is a three speed Pashley princess classic 22,5 inch frame in regency green. I find it really comfortable and a joy to ride. I took it in for its first service recently and I took the equivalent Pashley men’s classic three speed out for a ride while mine was being serviced. I’m really glad I opted for the princess over the men’s version. The bottom bracket is higher on the men’s version which necessitated me having the saddle higher than I needed to reach the ground when stopped, with my feet on tip toes. Raising the saddle to the correct height for my leg length resulted in me not to be able to touch the ground properly with my toes. Also not to be able to get the handlebars high enough so that I could sit upright. I am 6′ 2″ tall and the handle bars on the princess are high enough for me to be completely upright with my arms straight. I can pull on the handlebars as I put more pressure on the pedals when going uphill. The bike was just what I wanted in this respect and I find the ‘north road’ bars really comfortable. The Brooks B66S saddle is comfortable without being too springy and consequential loss of pedaling efficiency. I changed the saddle clamp position to behind the seat post, the factory fitted position is in front of the seat post. This gave me the nearly same forward reach to the handlebars as my old Raleigh Superbe. The gears are just right for me and there is never any problem shifting even when stationary. I find I’m in 3rd a lot which was not the case with my Raleigh. I did remove the wicker basket and fit my carradice saddle bag though.
      Two bike shops tried to talk me out of buying a Princess. I’m really glad I bought one in the end. After all it’s me who’s turning the pedals round!

  64. Chris says:

    Steve, Thank you so much. I think you have addressed my main concerns. As you have not mentioned this, I assume that you are having no problems with your knees hitting the handlebars, a problem that occurs with Gazelles. Time to get one! I think I too will remove the basket and perhaps add a Wald rear folding one. Thanks again, Chris

    • Chris, if your knees hit the handlebars on a Gazelle, then either the handlebars were set too low or, more likely, you tried a bicycle too small for you. For someone 6ft tall I would suggest at least a 23 or 24 inch frame (in Gazelle’s language: 59 or 61 cm). Unfortunately the largest Pashley Princess is only 22.5. The largest Dutch step through’s (Gazelle, Batavus and others) are 61cm (24″). Many elderly men ride ‘ladies’ bikes in the Netherlands and no bicycle shop owner would try to discourage them! Personally, I’m not using a step through (yet!) but am currently riding a Batavus Jakima frame size 61cm, which I found to be much more comfortable than the 59cm Batavus I rode before. And I am only 5’9″ tall!
      I have been importing and selling (used) Dutch bicycles here in Wales for a few years now (the type with 21-27 derailleur gears because of the hills) and found that many people thought the bike I was suggesting for them was too big. Once they got on it though and glided gracefully along the country lanes, they felt like a king (or a princess for that matter!). For pictures see www/facebook.com/beicsberno. Best of luck finding your bike, Berno

  65. Steve says:

    Chris, The bar ends do meet my knees in an extreme lock position when I am stationary, however when riding with normal ‘cornering’, I do not have a problem. I like the bars angled downward at about 45 degrees and this would tend to exacerbate the knee problem. The head is nowhere near the limit height at about 4″ out. The seat tube has about 3″ showing with a 22.5″ frame. I test rode a princess classic and I was delighted with it, so please try to do the same if you can. The princess I first test rode was a 20.5″ frame because it was the only one the store had with three speed gears and I rode this comfortably. The only thing was, the seat bracket was fore of the seat tube and the handle bars were set too high such that my arms were not straight. When I took delivery of my new bike three weeks later I made all the necessary adjustments I described including setting the seat bracket ‘aft’ of the seat tube. Together with all the other optimizing adjustments, I find the bike very comfortable to ride. Please let me know how you get on Chris.
    Off for a ride now before the sun sets.

  66. Chris M says:

    I ride a 30 year old hand-bulit Dawes Diploma with 3 speed Sturmey Archer gears. I have had it from new and it lived with in Seville, Spain for 15 years and has now moved across the border to Tavira, Portugal. Apart from the alloy handlebars snapping in half once it has been a fantastucally reliable bike. Back in the UK I wanted a new bike so went for a hybrid which I love. I did find myself buying all those extras though; lights, locks and lycra!

    In terms of the availability of step thru practical bikes I wonder why no one has mentioned the variety of these available at Decathlon. They look very good and get great reviews… Very interesting reading all this, good job!

  67. Where are Britain’s practical bikes?
    Maybe the first picture of the post gives the answer. In the foreground three women are cycling and only one man.
    In Germany we have just this mega trend to lycrafy cycling in order to break the trend heading to cycling and to save our car economy. Accompanying measures are tearing down protected cycle-infra and mixing the traffic. The Netherlands and Denmark, but Detroit too, where once the car became music (“Motown”), are a writing on the wall to Germany’s car industry.
    Cycling in environments like your British cities is high risk sports. You have to deal with car drivers who are well conscious of their force and power. You have to know that no law will help you to survive, but only your strength, your attention, your instincts, your dexterity and your anticipation of reckless behaviour. They are accustomed to that mostly male behaviour. They reckon on so. Men like to leave civilization behind, at least sometimes. They don’t need just a simple bicycle but high-end equipment for that task.
    And they are right.

    Women in general feel better in civilized circumstances. They see transport as a more practical issue. They act according to the law and civilized behaviour. And they expect this from others.
    This is a great mistake.
    The national cyclists’ organisation CTC said that 10 of the 13 people who died in cycling accidents in the capital last year were women and eight were killed by heavy goods vehicles. Yet there are around three times more male cyclists in London than women (2010).

    I think there is a strong connection between practical bikes, women’s share and traffic safety.

  68. Tim Newton says:

    Well, i guess i am fortunate enough to live in ‘Hilly’ Devon. However, the local authorities have spent millions on redeveloping our dis-used railway lines & canal routes (no hills). I am very fortunate to be able to cycle from my town of Bovey Tracey to Newton Abbot (approx 9 miles) without even touching a road. There is also an amazing 95 mile route being developed around the edge of Dartmoor National Park of which the views are amazing, utilizing old railway viaducts etc etc……Exeter & Plymouth are starting to develop an amazing cycling infrastructure also, with Exeter providing some amazing traffic free cycle routes using ashpalt.
    I myself ride a ‘Dutch’ bicycle a ”Dutchie Dapper” purchased from ‘Dutchiebikes’ for £349. I love riding it and many have passed comment on it. It appears from reading through these comments ,that many are not as fortunate as Devon when it comes to infrastructure, which is such a shame. But from information i have gathered (& seen) cycling is increasing considerably in this country. Lets hope it extends itself further afield, i’m sure it will (eventually) 🙂

  69. Andy Dayton says:

    I bought a ‘hybrid’ online for well under £200. Personally I think the term hybrid is marketing gumph, since mountain bike and racer are specialist bikes, it’s effectively just a bike. I don’t find its shimano 7 speed needs much specialist maintenance, it gives a good range of gears to use whilst getting fitter, I wouldn’t fancy single speed or just 3 speed hub.

    Brakes are ok, V brakes, no tricky disk brake maintenance.

    Quick release is worth having for fixing punctures.

    All available online in UK, and at bike shops and retailers. Can pay for itself in saved transport in just a few months.

  70. My bike is a practical, efficient 3 speeder with a coaster brake, like the Dutch bikes. The one thing I don’t have on it is a wheel lock. Maybe a Japanese one will fit in the space it should, a Dutch lock won’t, but at least for the trips that I intend to cycle with as I get older, they would be commuting, so a chainlock would actually be quite useful. I intend to get a job at a Timhortons or somewhere like that a 15 minute ride from my home to A, get money, B, get something to put on a resume as an adult and C, get something to exercise.

    My car is also a pretty practical car. I don’t have a race car nor do I want one or need one. It’s just a 2003 Chevy. The seats work, the lights work, pretty good shape, I might need a new oil filter in the near future but a mechanic can do that, like a Dutch person on their bike, I have very little knowledge or care for how my car works, I just put my foot on the pedal, hold the wheel and when needed use some switches, and the seat is adjusted for my size, exactly like how a Dutch bike is set up for it’s user. A pretty bland blue car too, not fancy. It doesn’t need to be. It’s a normal car that can go 110 legally, it can probably go 180 if I wanted a rather large fine, and might be able to go 200 or more, but Montana ain’t the autobahn anymore. The thing would only sell for maybe a couple thousand bucks.

    My bike was bought for about 650 dollars, maybe 400 GPB or so, and I got a nice chain lock that just goes around the saddle tube. It was the only other purchase I made with the bike. Loaded up my family’s minivan with it and drove it home (the store was rather far away given that it was a specialty store, and there aren’t Dutch cycle paths between it and my house). It will be used on some very nice days to get to school, although given that there are some rather dangerous crossings and way too many tiresome traffic lights, and I have a brother to take with me, I’ll be driving for the most part. I intend mainly to go to the grocery store for the most part when I need something from there and if I get that job once I settle down in the new school, I’ll cycle there each weekday and back from it, except right after a heavy snowfall unless I get some studded tyres.

  71. Thea says:

    I am the happy owner of a Batavus Adagio, a bike as beautiful as its musical name. It was pronounced ‘bike of the year’ in 2007. It has 7 gears, easily switched from the handlebar. I bought it second-hand from Erik at Klazienaveen (http://www.profiledefietsspecialist.nl/tweedehands-fietsen.html). Since I moved to the UK permanently in 1990 I have cycled over to Holland using the ferry and trains many times, exchanging my second-hand bike for a new second-hand bike, like others do with their cars, every few years. It’s always fun to see what new improvements have been invented in the intervening years. My current bike has an in-built combination lock where I can choose to just use the through-the-wheel section if I pop into a shop briefly, or the plastic-enclosed ‘chain’, long enough to go around a modest-sized tree. At home it lives unlocked in the garage. I’ve owned it for about 6 years and it has needed NO repairs, just new outer tires as they had lost much of their profile through use.

    I love visiting the shop and Erik and his team’s the service is always friendly and excellent. When I do visit I trade in my ‘old’ bike, and have whatever bikes I fancy for local test rides. Once I have made my choice the ‘new’ second-hand bike is left with Erik for a day or so while it is completely overhauled, checked and polished. During that time I get a temporary bike on loan for free. Occasionally I upgrade my panniers/saddlebags as they start to show signs of wear. The bike usually doesn’t! This time I might just pop in and buy some new panniers as we are travelling by car, the bike is still perfect and gives me much joy. Denne Hill? Not a problem.

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  73. Cavan Ray says:

    It’s the same deal here in Australia. Even in Melbourne, which is relatively cycle friendly these days, most shops stock the usual road and mtb stripped down rubbish. There’s a couple of shops that cater to commuters, but buying something that’s ready to go is very very difficult (One gazelle dealer, and no diamond frame 3 speeds). In the end I’ve chosen to go custom via the wonderful lads at Pedal Cyclery. Building up an old steel Raleigh frame into a classic 3 speed roadster with a bit more agility for Australian conditions. Dynamo lighting, coaster and drum brakes, rack, fenders, stand, chaincase, the works. In black of course.

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  75. Richard Thompson says:

    Good day folks.bikes are getting trendy these days for transport especially by the hipster Types.I just recently rebuilt a dumpster find a so called hybrid tourer.total cost $120 in paint + excessories .Got to say it turned brilliant looks great and is an easy riding bike.I was able to taylor it to suit me.Some of my bike is set up as bikes were 50/60 years ago along with more modern things like V brakes Shimano gears and the like The Lycra clad folk are still there but the new retro crowd are there too.The Dutch bikes are currently trendy but are expensive. Why don’t folk just use the kind of bike Our parents and grand parents used but with some modern up grades.Bikes then were sometimes the only transport people had then and those bikes were well built and these are being refurbished far more than people know.My bike was stripped down, full re spray service all mechanicals and replace some components .I currently do shopping and just fun rides.My next purchase is panniers and lights .Being a hybrid it will lend itself to a little bicycle touring too It’s been in traffic and dedicated bike paths and folk admire the bike and what it cost.They tell me that bike shops are only interested selling hi end racers or Ritchie’s but are not too interested in a standard commuter bike.You can do well with a dumpster or gum tree/E-bay bike.I do realize not all folk can fix and rebuild there own bikes, but if you can do it.Good general commuter bikes are out there and can be cheap too. Richie

  76. JJ says:

    Fantastic article. Our bike culture has become like our food culture. Driven by corporatism rather than a deep felt way of living. Just bought myself a 1980s Raleigh Courier and couldn’t be happier.

  77. Steve Webb says:

    The Raleigh Courier is a nice bike. I rode around on a Raleigh Cameo ‘step thru’ for a few years and it was a lovely comfortable bike to ride. My presnt bike is a Pashley Princess and after five years of ownership, the odometer reports 17000 miles. Give me three speed, a nice comfy srung saddle and an upright riding position and I’m happy

  78. Anthony Seaborn says:

    I think the main draw-back to using a Dutch bike or in fact any bike in the UK is that our road infrastructure was not designed to safely cater for them from the start. Modern traffic conditions here are lethal for a cyclist. Now, provide a comprehensive network of SAFE cycle lanes in every town and city, and that would change the picture.

  79. Ian says:

    Hills are the biggest problem. Plenty of practical bikes in Cambridge. Electric bikes are addressing the hill problem.

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