Riding a First World Bike through the Third World [of Cycling]

As you are probably aware, I recently decided to put my money where my mouth is and purchased a Dutch bike (Batavus Old Dutch) for my daily commute between Worthing & Brighton. Here are some initial thoughts from my notepad into riding a utility bike for utility purposes;

  • One of the first things a Briton will notice about a Dutch bike is the weight. Some Americans like to wax lyrical about old Cadillac’s and T-Birds – this is the bicycle equivalent. However, you will be comparing it to every other bike you’ve owned when you were a ‘serious’ commuter and that’s when you realise that you will never be followed by a team car or presented with a bunch of flowers and kissed by a beautiful woman on a podium because you made it to your office in a ‘Personal Best’ time. The rules change utterly as soon as you pedal away on a Dutch bike or roadster.
  • The riding position is far more upright with nice wide handlebars. I found myself discovering new and interesting leg muscles I never knew existed.
  • If you are making the switch from a road bike to a Dutch bike or roadster, a major problem will be training oneself to slow down. These bikes are built for utility with gentle speeds. I found for the first few outings I was still getting quite sweaty before I realised that I was subconsciously matching my previous pace which is lunacy. Cycling in heavy traffic makes me pedal faster for some reason, as though I’m being goaded back into the rat race. To escape the hoi polloi, I’ve started using more sections of the National Cycle Route 2 between Brighton & Worthing (most notably, the Shoreham to Worthing stretch). Free from traffic, one can relax, slow down and enjoy the view. For the commute home in the dark, the integral front light is never going to compete with Shoreham Lighthouse but I’ve found that it creates strangely romantic ‘mood lighting’ when cycling along the traffic free route with no street lights. Just the lights of Worthing Pier in the distance and the crashing of waves below an inky sky.  
  • You will become familiar with an occasional quiet jangling sound when you’re cycling a Dutch Bike. That’s because the vast majority have an integral lock which means you put your keys in to release the lock and take them out when you reach your end destination. This will be quite hard for many Britons to grapple with –in our Culture of Fear, we like keys trussed up in the inside pockets of a courier bag or another secure place. Bear with it though as this is one of the first steps to relaxing and enjoying your cycling. I had to smile when I got to my front door and had that frantic 20 seconds of checking my pockets to locate my keys before I realised that I had to lock the bike to release the keys to unlock the door to unlock the bike to get it through the house. Less haste, more speed.
  • The other area that would put British cyclists’ teeth on edge is if you elect to ditch carrying luggage on yourself and purchase some panniers instead. You will need to purchase Dutch panniers if you, like me, end up with a bike with a heavy-duty rack – these can carry a massive load (in my case, up to 16 stone, or a smaller sized British motorist that campaigns against speed cameras if you like). This is because they won’t take standard pannier clasps. However, Dutch panniers are robust and generally cheaper but they remain fitted to the bike at all times…..see, the Culture of Fear has kicked in again, hasn’t it? The idea is that you can go shopping with your bag for life and then just slip it in the panniers and pedal away. The bike really is your beast of burden.
  • I’ve been using my Dutch bike for far more chores around town. Because it has an integral lock, mudguards, integral lights (often powered by hub dynamo) and a big shiny bell, all you need to do is hop on and go about your day.
  • The other factor that allows you to go about your day is that you must ONLY wear normal clothes. You wouldn’t wear lycra to drive a car (unless you’re driving to the gym or you are a superhero from the dreams of Philip Hammond MP). You become a person on a bike as opposed to a cyclist.
  • Not only have I put the lycra away for a leisure cycling day, I’ve also decided to ditch the helmet. This combined with being on a large, upright graceful bicycle in normal clothing with wide load panniers has resulted in being given a surprising amount of  space and courtesy by passing motorists. A complete overhaul of British Cycle Infrastructure to bring it in line with the Netherlands, Denmark and parts of the USA wouldn’t go amiss however, just so everyone gets a decent choice in how they travel as opposed to just the few.
  • Oh, and lots of elderly people will walk up and talk to you about your bike which is pleasing but Worthing has a lot of elderly people.

A more technical review will follow if or when the smile wears off. To summarise however, it is the sheer joy of discovering a different type of cycling that harks back to a more civilised age that I have to doff my hat to (in lieu of a helmet). This is not to discredit other types of bicycle or cyclist – each style has its merits from fixed wheel to racing to touring to mountain bike and it’s just part of one big family. However I firmly believe that utility bikes in their various forms have the greatest potential to make our family very big indeed.

I leave you with yet another video of the Rush Hour in the Netherlands. This one is simply entitled ‘Bicycle rush hour in the dark, ‘s-Hertogenbosch’ by ‘Markenlei’. His other stuff on YouTube is well worth a look if you are British and can stand looking at happiness for a few minutes. Enjoy.

21 thoughts on “Riding a First World Bike through the Third World [of Cycling]”

  1. In a few months time, have a think back over the comments people have made and I expect you’ll notice that something along the lines of, “I didn’t know you could still get bikes like these,” crops up very frequently.

    There is a latent demand for roadsters but people only see the sportier end of the bike spectrum in the shops…

  2. Nice! Gently-ridden bikes clearly just don’t really need lights in a city street, just as pedestrians don’t need lights. There is enough light around to see the cyclists and pedestrians, even though they’re mostly wearing dark clothing (which actually stands out quite nicely against the glare off the wet roads!).

    A much more human-scale way to travel on local journeys 🙂

    Jim popped in briefly recently, and I was very jealous of his “proper” Dutch bike. My Batavus is proper, and Dutch, but more modern-looking and aluminium-framed. Mine has a plastic chain case, where Jim’s is leather-effect (nice!).

  3. Well done! Now stick 200 old paperback books in the panniers and take them to the local charity bookshop, walk through the front door and ask for some help unloading your bike – the bloke behind the counter thought I was kidding!

  4. I hope you enjoy the Dutch bike, as that style of cycling is really appealing. I decided to try a Pashley Roadster last year, looking for something more relaxed for pottering around on than my “serious” bikes.

    Sadly for me, it was a decidedly mixed experience. I absolutely loved the upright riding position, but the weight of the bike killed the fun of it for me in the end. Even on a very low gearing setup it was limiting my choice of routes as getting it up hills was a miserable experience. Because of where I lived that then forced me onto busier roads. And it wasn’t just a case of slowing down, it was a fundamental limitation of the bike.

    However, the tale ended well. I’ve restored an old Dawes and made it into an upright town bike. It has the jump on and go appeal of the Pashley, but without the issue of being made of cast iron.

    1. Surely riding a heavier bike like a Pashley for most transportation purposes is a good thing, your body will adapt quickly enough, it’ll be more comfortable, practical and durable and when you get on a lightweight sporty bike you’ll have more powerful legs with which to gun the crap out of it.

      1. Must admit, I didn’t get on with the Pashley Roadster either (actually found my Wifes Britannia a nicer ride), but then I was doing more mileage on a racer at the time – after riding nothing but a Gazelle for several months now, maybe I’d find the Roadster different again on another test.

        I’d be interested of your opinion when you get to have a ride on one Mr.C

        It’s hilly where we live – the Gazelles hub gears are fine (if a little high) now my legs have adapted to the geometry.

        His other stuff on YouTube is well worth a look if you are British and can stand looking at happiness for a few minutes.

        I’m a bit of an advocate of ‘watching the world go by’ if visiting somewhere interesting. Markenlei’s videos are like doing just that & I love ’em :>)

        The only thing I can’t stand about them are that they aren’t at least an hour long!

      2. In principle you’d think so, in practice it’s not. You end up putting quite a lot of pressure on your knees, as you toil up hill, which in the long term is bad for them.

        I was very much a fan of the drum brakes on the Pashley. Clean, impervious to the weather and very low maintenance. They are also pretty good at stopping you too.

  5. Ooo this is an inspiring article: the posts worry me though as I had hoped, nay dreamed(!), of purchasing a Pashley Roadster Sovereign as my steed about town. I shall now insist on a prolonged test ride before purchase!

  6. I completely agree with all of this. I alternate between an upright German (rather than Dutch) bike and a road bike for my commute. The upright is just a breeze. It’s a bit slow on junctions (and I’ve tended to feel I want to be able to sprint at the same speed as motor traffic on the junctions) but I’m learning to take junctions very differently. The only thing I find is that when I’m on my upright, if I have to deal with a two or three lane junction that I need to really communicate well with the driver behind me (which is easier as I’m now sitting upright) and rely on them to not knock me over more than I might on a sprinting race bike where my attitude is to leg it fast out of the way.

    I’m also now cycling to work in a shirt and jeans rather than lycra, which is finding its way to the bottom of the cupboard. And I’m using quieter back streets all the way up to the City where they disappear (you need to get over a bridge from where I live which means a two or three lane beast in any direction) and really don’t mind using some of the crap shared facilities. They could be much improved but they’re actually quite usable at slower speeds.

    I’ve found my journey time is on average 90 seconds (over a 20 minute ride) longer than it was previously.

    Oh, and I’ve bought a Sam Brown belt to chuck over my normal coat.

  7. Mark at I Bike London recommended your blog and I’m so glad I stopped by! I ride a Dutch Workcycles Omafiets in my American city (where it is an extremely unusual sight), and I couldn’t agree more with your assessment on all points. I love being able to hop on and go, wearing what I’m wearing, without thinking about whether I need lights, or a trouser-clip, or even a helmet. I don’t need to remember my lock. I can bring home a week’s worth of groceries–AND I leave my Oma outdoors, only a plastic bag covering the Brooks saddle, and never worry about weather damage (I have a back yard where I can lock it up).

    It’s a wonderful, wonderful bike.

    It has taken me a full year of daily commuting on my Oma to develop my leg muscles sufficiently, and I still walk it up certain hills, but I rarely think of my other, lighter bike anymore unless I’m planning to go more than ten or fifteen miles.

    I lived in East Sussex for a while and so enjoyed your description of cycling there at night. How lovely.

  8. Slightly different beast, but my experience with a Boris bike was similar to some of the commenters here. I actually came down to London with my hi-vis jacket, thinking I’d need it but it was so easy to hop on board (in my dark grey ankle-length cashmere coat) I totally forgot to wear it even at night. And there’s the added bonus that all drivers (and most cyclists) give the Boris Bikes a very wide berth as we wobble slowly away from the lights.

  9. Just out of interest, how far’s your commute? I’m doing about 15 miles each way at the moment, and have found that just a tad too far for the Pashley. It’s perfectly do-able, but ends up taking a long time, and I can end up pretty tired by the time I get home. That said, it’s still the perfect bike around town – all the hop-on-and-go-ness that you talk about AND the advantage that as it doesn’t look like an ASDA special BSO, no-one around here’s going to steal it!

    1. Karl

      My commute is 12 miles approx. I have a Cotic RoadRat with drop bars and Schwalbe Marathon 35mm tyres and can cover the distance at a fastish lick in 40 minutes. I will still use it from time to time as it is lovely to ride being a steel frame with wider tyres. However the Dutch Bike should take an hour. I say should because i’m trying desperately to slow down and stop trying to mimic a road bike pace! As spring starts trying to have a go I look forward to really appreciating lazier rides alongside the seafront at a pace that pedestrians will also appreciate on the narrower shared use bits and in regular shorts and a T Shirt (weather permitting).

      I appreciate that the roadster or Dutch Bike is not everyone cup of tea or it just doesn’t seem practical for longer or hillier commutes. However, I seem to be adapting very well and the most important factor is that I haven’t been able to wipe the stupid grin off my face since I started commuting on it!

      1. I managed to go on a 60-ish mile CTC ride on my Dutch bike last year. Not a big problem keeping up with them, although some lower gears would have helped on the very steep bits. I don’t think bike weight is as important as many would believe: in my fitter days I was beaten up every pass in the Colorado Rockies by a friend riding with twice as much weight on board. He was just better at climbing, from doing most of his cycling in Devon.

  10. Hi Jim, I still don’t see the advantage of your dutch bike over say, sticking a brooks saddle and some panniers on your Cotic, but each to their own (I run a tricross with, well, a brooks and panniers).
    I know you’ve got a small child- what methods if any, have you used to transport junior by bike? I’ve got a two year old who I ferry about in a trailer that he’s rapidly growing out of- have you tried a bakfiets or similar? We’re trying for a second one, and I’m really keen on a transport solution that doesn’t involve simply giving in and buying a second car.
    Karl (different karl to the one above)

    1. Possibly all the other things: integral lights, full chaincase, drum brakes, upright riding position, integral lock. A Dutch bike is ready to go at all times, you just jump on and ride. And it doesn’t have any dirty parts 🙂

      As for transporting children, follow the Dutch example. Get a Christiania trike, or, even better, a Kangaroo. Our Kangaroo is still in regular use, and has more than paid for itself in saved fuel costs and parking charges. It’s also great fun to ride in and on! Our 5-year-old twins commute to school on Roland Add+ trailer bikes when the weather’s fine, or in the Kangaroo when it’s wet or freezing.

  11. Excellent blog on the joys and virtues of the utility cycle. Not having a regular commute (working from home) I’d not considered using one of my bikes for going somewhere. A cycle ride has been a leisure activity, cheaper and more fulfilling than going to the gym.

    It’s a sad reflection of how car-centric society has become when people (i.e. me) don’t even consider the option of using the bike for a short trip.

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