Dutch Bicycles

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Want to commute to work or run weekend errands on a bicycle without looking like a sweaty, beady-eyed bike messenger? Want to save the planet and your sport coat? Get a Dutch bike.

The New York Times has a set of features on urban cycling placed, strategically, in the Fashion section. The purpose of the articles is to demonstrate that it's possible to commute by bicycle while still wearing nice clothes. The Dutch log more miles on bicycles than they do in cars, and they ride while wearing suits and high heels. Unlike the Lycra-clad mad men racing down Sheridan Avenue on their Cervelos, the Dutch regard bicycles as workaday things. They ride pragmatic bicycles equipped with fenders, chain guards, swept-back handlebars, and racks. Men ride the same bikes as women–sometimes even step-throughs–and they don't look or feel twee. Because their bikes enforce an upright posture, it's difficult to get going very fast, so you don't sweat as much. Modulated speeds also mean the Dutch don't wear helmets.

The appeal of the Dutch bicycle lies less in the bike itself than in an attitude about bicycling: just get on the bike and go someplace. No fussing with clothing, no tying everything down, no strapping on a big helmet, no fear of grievous injury. I commute on a Bianchi Boardwalk, a hybrid bike in the American style–slightly hunched like a man in a fox hole–while wearing a sport coat and khakis or jeans. Invariably I ride like I'm in a race, even when I'm not in a hurry. Consequently, I arrive sweating and rumpled and it takes a few moments for my body and mind to slow down to walking pace again.

And yet, I can't picture myself riding upright in the Dutch style, helmetless with my pant legs flapping as I ride along the suburban streets. The low handlebars on my Bianchi enforce a head-forward, aggressive posture that can get uncomfortable after a while, but I also feel less conspicuous, less on display. I keep a wary eye on the car culture around me.

To fully adapt the sensible Dutch approach to bicycling, we would have to develop some sort of bicyle culture, and if that's going to happen in the US, non-cyclists will have to lead the way. The most interesting comment in the NYT article came from George Bliss, a Pratt Institute faculty member and owner of a West Village vintage bike shop, the Hub Station.

“I use to think that car culture was the problem, but now I think it’s
bike culture,” he said. By that he meant that the discourse about city
biking is dominated by cycling zealots who don’t have the desire, or
the skill, to attract people who don’t see themselves as cyclists, just
as people who ride a bike to work.

He's right. If we're truly serious about using the current recession to make fundamental changes in our culture, change won't be brought about by the zealots. It will be brought about by ordinary people looking to improve their lives.

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16 Comments

  1. Dutch bikes are heavy and clumsy. Amsterdam is a flat city with mild winters. Not like American cities. And dutch bikes are hard to haul up three or four sets of stairs.

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  2. Just bought a 3 speed Dutch style bike that weighs about 50 pounds. Hills are a little tougher then with my road bike but the added security of the upright position vastly outweighs the lack of speed. It is a great feeling to be able to see OVER the tops of cars.
    Biking in NYC is tough enough and these types of bike make running errands and commuting to work much safer and biking to the supermarket realistic.

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  3. My wife has a Dutch style bike, and I noticed the same thing: that sitting upright makes you feel safer and more relaxed. That’s what’s so great about Dutch bikes: they’re as convenient as cars. No silly pants, no massive plastic domes on your head. I just repaired by Bianchi hybrid, so I’m not in the market for a new bike, but my next one will be a Dutch bike.

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  4. Not only the Dutch but in the less industrialized countries most people ride bikes to go everywhere, to work, to school, and with the ascent of electric bicycles, it will be even easier to go around without taking to much from our body.

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  5. TT,
    Riders, not bikes, are clumsy. Dutch bikes are heavy – that’s what makes them so smooth and sturdy. Plenty of American cities are flat (Chicago!). Mild winters are not needed to ride a Dutch bike, as they are particularly suited to year-round riding with their enclosed chain, gears, and brakes. I wonder why some people leave negative diatribes all over the internet just for the fun of it.

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  6. I have a 7.5 round-trip commute in Chicago over curbs and cobblestones. My Bianchi Boardwalk, a hybrid bike that’s known for its durability, has taken a beating. I would like to know if Dutch bikes are any sturdier than American-style bikes.

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  7. I got a Dutch bike back in June and I have ridden it pretty much everyday for everything from work to shopping at the supermarket (I bought 45 litre panniers for those days I want to carry lots of stuff).
    My poor car (which I love, love, love) sits neglected in my driveway. I am finding less and less reason to use my car unless I am traveling long distances or hauling heavy loads.
    My roommates who resisted my urging to bike more have started to see things my way. One bought a dutch style bike (upright riding position, rack in the back) and the other one a MTB.
    The one with the dutch style bike has found it much easier to start running errands on bike and avoiding use of her car. The one with the MTB has wanted to follow suit only to be thwarted by the realities of using a mountain bike to run errands – no chain-guard so your nice pants get dirty, no fenders so riding on wet streets equals mud on your nice pants, lots of weight on your wrists and hands can be uncomfortable, and no rack in the back to put your groceries on.
    I want more and more people to bike because more bikers on roads equals safer roads for bikers and biking is healthier then driving. I also realize it is vital for the future of our country considering the political, economic and environmental costs of fossil fuels. I want more people to realize what I am realizing right now. If you live in an urban area like NYC, Chicago, Philadelphia, DC, or Boston (the only ones I have seen and only ones I can attest to) close to 90% of your errands can be performed by bike or on foot.
    I think Dutch style bikes, with the upright and relaxed geometry, hub gears with full chaincase, fenders, front and rear rack as well as dynamo powered lights, will make this transition more likely. I have my Biria Dutch bike since June so I can’t attest to quality yet (so far so good). I will update on quality as time progresses but in regards to comfort, safety, and utility my dutch bike is much better then my road or mountain bike. My roommate’s experience can also attest to that.
    I have been an avid bike rider for over 25 years and I have never been more comfortable or more eager to hop on my bike and do WHATEVER then I am now. I will make up any excuse to hop on that Dutch bike and ride around high above traffic and for the most part free from its restrictions.
    Get a dutch style bike – it may change your life.

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  8. I’ve wanted a Dutch bike ever since I first read about them, and everyone who has commented on my posts loves them.
    I’m still torn, though, between a Dutch-style bike and a hybrid, like the one I own. Dutch bikes are so practical for everyday errands and commuting because you don’t have to wear any special gear. They’re as convenient as cars in that sense.
    However, there are lots of bike commuters where I work, and I’ve noticed that by far the most common bike is a lot like mine: a hybrid modified for commuting with racks, panniers, a more comfortable saddle, etc. Local terrain and weather make a lighter bike more preferable. In Chicago itself, though, Dutch style bikes are more common. There’s even a bike shop that specializes in them called the Dutch Bike Company. City commutes tend to be shorter, at least among the people I know, and the heavier traffic makes the slower pace of Dutch bikes safer.
    I would be interested in hearing how a Dutch bike holds up over extended use.

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  9. Great article! I ride to work on my bike every day0 with the high hills and all! Works perfectly as long as it isn’t snowing or raining 🙂 And I get aerobics every day that way- I put of a few kg that way and fell good about myself and the planet 🙂

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  10. Many dutch have several bikes. Each for a different use. city bike for errands and going to the city center.
    A hybrid for going to work or enjoying a small ride through the country side just to relax.
    Personally (not typical dutch perse) i’ve got 4 bikes.
    1) city bike (fixed gear, heavy duty, workhorse)
    2) mountainbike (if it’s snowing and for sports in fall)
    3) racebike (for sports in summer)
    4) touring bike (just to relax and go for a nice and quit ride in the weekends)
    Because bikes are very cheap it’s easy to own several. 🙂

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