Dutch Bicycles Revisited

One of the most popular posts I’ve ever written was on Dutch bicycles. Since my initial post I’ve talked to a number of people about Dutch bikes and urban bicycling in general. Clearly there’s a huge interest in Dutch bikes in the US, even though I’ve never actually seen someone riding one. In any case, I’d like to post an update on this topic because it says a lot about the prospects of creating an environmentally responsible transportation system here.

A couple of weeks I began a new job, which is why, incidentally, my posts have been so infrequent. My new job is in Evanston, which is next to my home town of Wilmette, IL. Evanston is the home of Northwestern University, and the town combines college town amenities, an urban feel, and suburban convenience. Like a lot of college towns, it boasts a healthy bike culture. Not only are there a lot of cyclists on the streets, bike racks are widely available, at least downtown, and car drivers seem used to dealing with bikes in the streets. 

My bike commute has effectively doubled. It’s now 12 miles round trip, over cobblestone streets, steep curbs, hills, and potholes. My route takes me near Lake Michigan, so the winds can get blustery. It takes me about 45 minutes each way.

I ride a Bianchi Boardwalk. It’s a hybrid bike–more stable than a road bike, faster than a mountain bike. Overall, I really like the Boardwalk: it’s fast, nimble, and versatile. It’s taken a beating but stood up pretty well. 

A bike commute, it’s important to note, is not a Sunday ride on a bike path. It’s not Saturday errands around a city neighborhood. Ride sixty miles a week on a bicycle lugging a stuffed messenger bag and your requirements for a bike change. 

So I went looking for a Dutch bike. I wanted something that could withstand the pounding a bike commute gives out, and I wanted the comfort of sitting a little more upright than my Boardwalk allows. I went to Turin bike shop in Evanston where they sell Electra Amsterdam bikes (and Bianchis, too). They’re classic Dutch bikes: all black, with fenders, chain guards, and a leather saddle. They’re beautiful bikes. The salesman owned one, and he loved it, and told me I didn’t want one.

Dutch bikes are great until you hit wind. Then you feel like Pee Wee Herman in a wind tunnel, crouched on the bike, peddling madly and not moving very fast. The Amsterdam has three speeds and a coaster brake, an arrangement I haven’t used since I commuted to grade school. Other Dutch bikes have only 8 speeds, plenty for tooling around flat, compact Amsterdam, but seriously limiting on windswept, undulating Midwestern roads. Strap on a bag holding a laptop and a novel and suddenly you’re riding grandpa’s bike. Even under ideal conditions, the upright posture of a Dutch bike gets uncomfortable on rides longer than 8-10 blocks. The Turin salesman said the Electra rode like a dream on short trips, but on longer rides his hips started to hurt. 

Dutch bikes are as much a set of attitudes as actual bicycles. Dutch bikes are about balancing elegance with practicality, about using bicycles as workaday vehicles without all the fuss and hazards associated with American bikes. They’re also about larger cultural changes: making room for bikes on our streets, using public funds to place bike rakes in commercial zones (and removing abandoned bikes taking up valuable bike rack space), and, most of all, not making the automobile the default transportation option for daily transportation.

My 12-mile bike commute is longer than the driving commute of many people I know. However, I can bike to work only because the towns of Wilmette and Evanston have made a commitment, however minimal, to encourage bicycle riding. Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, and Paris have tried to emulate Dutch bike culture with mixed results. Paris’s Vélib’ system is a model public bike rental system, but Vélib’ bikers peddle like lonely kindergardeners around central Paris as gangs of scooters roar past. 

As romantic as Dutch bikes are, the reality is that I don’t live in Amsterdam. I’m never going to ride to work on a Gazelle while wearing a suit. I have to contend with Great Lakes winds and minivan drivers on cellphones. So I’m going to make a few small modifications to my Bianchi and continue to wear a helmet. I would love to live in a Dutch bike culture, but until that happens, I’d be satisfied to live in a place where people used turn signals.

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2 Comments

  1. The Netherlands is notorious for its strong winds on open plains. We still cycle.
    I also cycle about 12 miles to work. I do this on a regular Dutch bicycle with a coaster braker and no gears. No problem.
    Of course it helps that there is a good bicycle infrastructure where I live (near Rotterdam). My top speed is about 20 kph. So is my average speed. I have 4 stop lights between my suburb and the center of Rotterdam. And the road is about 80% cycle path, about 15% cycle lanes, and about 5% on, mostly, cul-du-sac roads. And that is a typical example of Dutch cycling.

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  2. Sounds like an ideal commute, Wim. Chicago has introduced a bike sharing program and greatly increased its bike paths since I wrote this post–perhaps my most popular. Still, it’s not easy to commute by bike here. I work in the middle of the Loop on LaSalle Street, which is pretty dense with cars and pedestrians. Uber drivers have become just as aggressive as cab drivers, if not more so. And there’s no place to park a bike in my office building. So, for the time being, I do a train and walk commute.

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