A Dutch Bike in Britain: A Square Peg in a Round Hole

Lancing Beach 2011

It is now a year since I bought my Dutch Bike from the good folk of Amsterdammers in Brighton. Here are some thoughts.

It has been used consistently throughout the year come rain, wind or shine on a 24 mile commute from Worthing to Brighton and back. When the trains have permitted, I have ridden it from Victoria Station all around Central London to meetings. It has become my people carrier, my town bike, my commuter transport, my campaigning vanguard but also a glimpse back to what riding a bicycle should be like in supposedly civilised times, and could be again.

The bike I purchased in question was a 2009 model (unused) Batavus Old Dutch with a Gents Frame. In the Netherlands, a Gentleman’s bicycle is an Opafiets and a Ladies bicycle with step through frame is an Omafiets.

It came with the following:

A Shimano Nexus hub offering 3 speeds – ’slow’, ‘not quite as slow’ and ‘now you’re cruising.’

Hub brakes for minimal maintenance. They probably don’t offer the absolute stopping power of disc brakes but you won’t be throwing the bike around as though you have Red Bull instead of blood either. You happily gave up the right to be a ‘cyclist’ and became an ‘ordinary person on a bike’ when you handed your money over the counter.

Rear rack; A Dutch bike will more often than not have a heavy duty rack on it. I was helping out at a local cycle campaign group event last year and was able to strap my Brompton to the back of the Old Dutch and cycle 2 miles home from Worthing seafront with no fuss. You will need Dutch panniers however as the clasps on an Ortlieb pannier will not fit around the rack tubes. I purchased some New Look Dutch Panniers that are black with little reflective strips on the sides and they stay on the bike at all times (a ‘bag for life’ slips in and out easily).

The heavy rack means that, particularly with the relaxed angles, a lot of weight is going to be applied to the back wheel making it more prone to punctures, especially when laden with shopping or little people. I recommend getting a Marathon Plus tyre combined with a ‘puncture proof’ inner tube especially for the winter months for the rear wheel. This will reduce your rolling resistance further but you will be a lot more confident going out on crappy British cycle infrastructure or British roads where all the crap gets washed to the sides in inclement weather and doesn’t get properly swept away. A Dutch bike with more puncture resistant tyres becomes an all-seasons tank. This is handy because Local Authorities seem to delight in providing army assault courses masquerading as ‘shared use facilities’.

Full length mudguards; I would find it stunning that in Britain mudguards are regarded as an extra if I wasn’t also acutely aware that many are dressed in cycling specific attire anyway so don’t mind getting a bit dirty from puddles or feel that mudguards do not add to the aesthetically pleasing look of their steeds. If more people in Britain start cycling and in regular clothing then you’ll want to start up a mudguard factory if you like making profits.

Coat guard; Whilst I was on a Study Tour of the Netherlands recently with the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain led by David Hembrow, I was quite shocked to hear that one of the most common injuries for children is when they are sat on a rear child seat and get their legs and feet caught in the rear wheel. A Coat/Skirt guard helps.

Chain guard; Keeps the sea breeze and four seasons away from the more sensitive bits (of the Bike).

Kick stand; I still keep forgetting I have a kickstand and lean my bike up against stuff. We British just aren’t used to sheer practicality any more.

Integral lights (sadly battery operated as opposed to dynamo). The front light isn’t at LOOK AT ME! I’M A MOUNTAIN BIKER ON FULL BEAM IN A BUILT UP AREA AND I’VE SPENT £350 TO BE SEEN FROM SATURN. DAZZLING ISN’T IT? levels of brightness but instead is a constant steady modest glow. Still brighter than the Ever Ready range though.

Integral lock: Amsterdammers gave me a chain free of charge to complement the AXA lock. This means that I can tether the bike to a stand as well as locking up the rear wheel.

To amplify just how differently similar Dutch Bikes are in the British landscape, you will notice when you come to inflate an inner tube that they generally come with Dunlop valves. That’s right. None of that presta or schrader nonsense. This bike reminds you that although it was built in 2009, the research and development stopped in about 1959. My Old Dutch came with a pump but most pumps should work on a presta setup with a little brute force and ignorance.

I have also bought a Bobike mini+ seat based on it getting a Mumsnet Best Award for 2011 and a windscreen to protect the sea breeze from my son’s eyes. My 21 month old son and I like to get on the bike on a Saturday afternoon and slowly pootle through Worthing town and along the promenade. There is an excellent children’s play area at the western end of the beach now and I can put a Toddlebike on the back (review LONG overdue but in a word: Brilliant) along with a snack, drinks and nappies in the pannier. The bike now has a big shiny two tone bell (from Hembrow’s Dutch Bike Bits) which my son likes to use all the time with utter hilarity. When people see us with this typically Dutch set up, we always get smiles, waves and murmurs of ‘now that’s a good idea’. We’ve even been stopped and engaged in conversation by people curious as to where we got the seat from. Wonderful stuff and always a bit of a surprise for them that we didn’t get the windshield from Mars but a nice independent bike shop in Britain.

My son on a trip to the beach trying to cram an entire banana in his mouth

In total my expenditure on the bike (including accessories, a service and a tyre replacement) has totalled no more than £650 across the year. An annual season rail ticket between Worthing and Brighton is now £1448 if paid up front. Its £139.10 for a monthly season ticket (or £1669.20 per annum) or £36.20 if paying weekly (which works out at a whopping £1882.40 per annum).

Strangely, I seem to have become more difficult to buy birthday and Christmas presents for. In the past I was a ‘Cyclist’ and therefore easy to classify. Now I am ‘person that happens to ride a bike’. This has annoyed some loved ones (in the nicest possible way) as before they could content themselves with getting me an annual subscription to Cycling Plus or an item of cycle clothing or a book about climbs of the Tour de France. I’d still be happy with any of those things. In fact, any present will do these days. I’m turning 40 this year so beggars can’t be choosers.

Dutch Bikes and Roadsters are clearly bikes that hark back to a more civilised age whose return is long overdue. However, riding a Dutch Bike in Britain sometimes feels as though one is trying to continually fit a square peg in a round hole. It’s a bike for laid back safe and slow riding yet when put against the backdrop of a typical British rush hour the temptation to ride faster is compelling, as though one is being goaded back in to the rat race. It is practically impossible to be calm and serene in modern British road conditions. When you do hit a quiet spot, free from motorists driving continually as though they are fleeing a crime scene or on a weekend where the pressure’s off and the clock ticks a little bit slower, it all starts to make sense. Although the Old Dutch weighs about the same as the late, great Barry White , on a seafront path with a slight tailwind, the miles purr deeply away in a beautifully relaxed fashion. I defy anyone not to smile.

There’s a section of National Cycle Network route 2 on my commute that runs past Widewater Lagoon, Lancing and on a beautiful clear evening you can slowly cruise along the traffic free path and see light aircraft flying across at low altitude from the sea on their landing approach to Shoreham Airport. Sometimes I’ll slow right down and suddenly the sea breeze whistling in my ears is replaced by the sound of crashing waves. Why more people don’t get an upright bicycle (or any bicycle, let’s not be picky) and feel the exhilaration, freedom and sense of achievement of riding it from one place to another through all the seasons with all the rewards (and occasional challenges) that it brings is quite beyond me. Having said that, a couple of days ago I was pedalling home from work in dark, murky January fog that had rolled in from the sea with a fine drizzle and slight tailwind. It felt as though I was being slowly propelled through the soul of Piers Morgan.

You get a lot more time to think when on a Dutch Bike or roadster, as you may have gathered.

On the train
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18 thoughts on “A Dutch Bike in Britain: A Square Peg in a Round Hole”

  1. It’s rather hard to stop urge to cycle faster, isn’t it? It *feels* safer to do so when in motor traffic, although I’m not sure whether it actually is or not. The net result is unpleasant sweatiness, which I never experienced in the Netherlands, where I cycled at my own natural, relaxed pace.

    P.S. As a man considering buying an Oma, I would like to stress that they are a ‘unisex’ bicycle!

  2. I’d love a stately, solid, upright Dutch bike – if everywhere I cycled was a segregated path. Sadly I can’t imagine me dodging potholes and close passing cars in Manchester would look quite as classy as the effortlessly stylish Dutch ladies and gentlemen in Amsterdam do….

  3. Glad to hear you’re enjoying your bike so much. They’re just “right”, aren’t they…

    And there’s nothing to stop you having a second, “fast”, bike to ride at other times if you want to.

  4. Great story well done, going against accepted thinking is commendable. I can recommend bike trailers for kids though, it takes the centre of gravity or ‘extreme leverage’ issue with a child’s head out of the exercise. [if that is baffling ,draw an arch on a piece of paper showing rear view of the bike and child’s head – bike position > ground]

    Using a Cannondale ‘Bugger’ with all three from the age of three months, it was brilliant. They would sing as we went along, and all three have good memories of going to school, shopping and to parks. However, we had one accident on a steep hill when the front wheel washed out with a sand slide at slow speed. Kids were left hanging in the trailer tipped @ 90º, no drama. We all laughed our heads off A trailer is worth every cent.

    As they grew out of the trailer, each took up the trail with us and they all cycle now at 20,17, and 16.

    Wishing you well with the Dutch bike and thinking differently. : )

  5. Great stuff, Jim. I have the same spontaneous grin every time I ride my Gazelle Grenoble. It’s an omafiets, but I agree with Mark AsEasyAsRiding: they’re unisex, and much easier to use 🙂 Mine also has a UK rear rack, so existing panniers fit.

    We have hills instead of high winds (though sometimes both!) and, while I can get up the hill with the 7-speed Nexus most of the time, the downhills can be scary with cantilevers on the front and hub brake on the back.

    As the bike was pretty cheap to start with (£215, ex-hire from http://www.popiel.co.uk/), I’m considering getting the brakes uprated along with replacing the bottle dynamo with a hub one and a regearing to make the hills a bit easier. The front light has stopped working anyway, and I was already a bit concerned that some of the downhills were a bit fast for it.

    Every time I see an adult leaned over on a road bike, MTB or hybrid, I want to shout “try a Dutch bike for the sake of your smile and your back!”

    Oh, and Philip: I ride the Gazelle on-road as well as on separated paths around Bath. The urge to speed up when cycling with cars is strong, though, but not as strong as when I’m on my hybrid.

  6. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about your
    bicycle. While I live in the United States I am always interested in the experiences of cyclists in other countries. I have considered purchasing a Dutch bike and found your post helpful. Happy riding. Be the change…

    1. “I have considered purchasing a Dutch bike”

      Watch CL for a Schwinn “Racer,” which is not. Add rack and lights of your choice. Done.

  7. The odd thing about my roadster is that whilst I originally got it to get me from A-to-B in comfort at a moderate pace, when the speed, volume and reckless behaviour of motorists dictates it, it can really shift. Whilst it is no crabon fibre racer, it is still a lot faster than the typical mountain bike pressed into service as a transportation bike which we see so often in the UK.

  8. what I found was that the dutch bike I’d bought for a bit of a laugh and to carry big loads became my default bike for any journey within around 4 miles. Once you get used to not ruining your clothes, and not worrying about having your bike nicked (because the chava’s are not interested) plus the general way it makes you smile then your other 5 bikes start gathering dust. Being able to strap a childs bike to the front rack and then take one or more passengers on the back also comes in handy.

  9. Thanks for this post. Just the information I was looking for. It’s my 40th birthday tomorrow and my parents have given me the money to buy a bicycle, so I’m going to look at Dutch bikes. Very excited.

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