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.