Why People In the UK Don’t Cycle No 5 – Bicycle Maintenance

Last Monday night I was sat on the floor in my Kitchen putting a new inner tube and front tyre on my Brompton. I set a new personal best by only swearing twice as I put all my ‘manly’ effort into levering the tyre over the rim – which felt like my attempt to push over Stonehenge whilst on a family trip aged 4.

I enjoy a little bit of bicycle maintenance from time to time, but only a little. Actually, if I was really honest, I’d rather pour a nice glass of deeply refreshing beer, sit back and relax in the knowledge that someone else is doing it and that I’m doing my bit for the local economy – and Worthing has some excellent local bike shops. Last week, the chain snapped on my Dutch Bike whilst sauntering along the seafront (still a few miles from home) just as the Heavens decided to provide Niagara Fallsian levels of precipitation. I could have tried to fix it, removing the chaincase piece by piece, getting colder and wetter and miserable. Instead I tethered the bike at the nearest Railway Station (as the peak time bike ban was still in force), discovered a pub I’d never seen before and had a very reasonably priced and tasty pint of ale with chatty locals after booking the bike in to a local shop. A bit of inconvenience but it’s my main mode of transport and it’s still way, way cheaper than motoring.

If we can assume for a moment that a barrier to people not cycling in the UK is lack of confidence on our Nations roads and cycle infrastructure designed on a faulty Etch a Sketch, then a lack of confidence in cycle maintenance must also be added to the list.

“Well, that’s the ‘Basingstoke Station Sustainable Travel Link’ sorted out. Let’s add the ‘Cyclists Dismount’ signs by throwing darts at it.”

If your car breaks down, you have the safety of a metal box to lock yourself in whilst a breakdown recovery service can come and carry out the work required or get you home if necessary. You can be a car owner without having to know the slightest thing about how it actually works beyond where the various fluids go and where to put some air from time to time. The motorist is divorced further from the workings of their machines by the fact that they now need specialised computers to ‘diagnose’ any problems or faults. In the past, to open a car bonnet in the village where I grew up would be to attract the attention of every man within a 5 mile radius, each with their own ‘knowledge’ and ‘experience’ to offer, even non-car owners. Nowadays, motorists have to endure the qualified mechanic or ‘Diagnostic Centre’. I personally dread this; partly because I barely use the family car so the cost always seems out of proportion, partly because I speak like a BBC Radio 4 Continuity Announcer which seems to invite an extra ‘0’ to the final total and mainly because the cretins know they can say what they like and I sagely nod my head to anything because in reality I simply don’t care.

To a general public now completely divorced from car repair (or most sorts of domestic appliance repair), to speak to them about bicycle repair is to speak to them about the life of Alan Titchmarch in Esperanto. Later this year, Bike Week will be held where local cycle organisations & campaigns get their time to shine by holding cycling related rides and events. Usually at such events is what’s called a ‘Dr Bike’ stand, where the public can get their bikes checked out by a friendly & knowledgeable volunteer. Personally, I can remember looking with horror at such events as parents would turn up ensuring that their children had the latest safety equipment such as brightly coloured helmets and hi-viz but had neglected to notice that the brake blocks were missing. Buying safety equipment is of course easy and instantly demonstrates to other parents that they care whilst beautifully covering the death trap issue.

One solution would be to give more choice to the public of a type of bicycle that has been around for a very long time and is still more relevant for the majority of journeys that they would take. Dutch Bikes and roadsters built for sheer utility are, as a rule, incredibly low maintenance as gears, brakes and chain are enclosed. I have barely had to touch my Batavus Old Dutch in a year and a half of hard use (chain and rear tyre aside), doing 24 miles a weekday plus weekend duties and being left outside in all elements allied to a salty sea breeze.

I’m certainly not saying that engaging in bicycle repair is a bad thing, in fact far from it. Chris Page, who sits on the board of Cycling Embassy of Great Britain is so wonderfully mechanically minded, he could make a bicycle bell ring with a Mancunian accent. Bicycle repair can be cathartic, even therapy as my Wife will testify after catching me gently weeping with joy on the kitchen floor after successfully changing that Brompton tyre. For those that want to learn a bit more about bicycle mechanics or even train to become a bicycle mechanic, CTC did this useful little booklet (as part of Cycle magazine) with a list of links at the end here.

In the interests of research, I asked a British Ex-Pat living as a Dutchman and a Dutchman living as a Dutchman to see how things are done in the Netherlands. After all, they have more bicycles than people and infrastructure that people want to use as opposed to infrastructure that people want to laugh at (laughing is less painful than remembering that our Council Taxes actually paid for it).

Here are selected extracts from the response I got from David Hembrow

……There are just as many ‘cyclists’ here as in any other country, and they’re just as likely to do their own maintenance.

All my “cycling friends” do their own maintenance, and they all ride around with tools and spare tubes etc., though some may take more difficult jobs to a shop.

However, because of the wide demographics of cycling in the Netherlands, many people who ride bikes in the Netherlands, including many who ride long distances regularly, simply aren’t the sort of person who likes mucking about them. These are the people who perhaps wouldn’t ride bikes if they didn’t live here.

Many people have a bicycle shop which they use regularly, and Dutch bike shops offer “spring maintenance” deals and such-like, so that many people take their bikes into the shop regularly as they would a car for an MOT test. Such a test will typically include an all-in price to repair minor items such as cables or brake pads, but you’ll get an extra bill for more expensive parts.

There’s a definite demographic/class split between the “ride the bike into the ground” types (students etc. I’ve even seen a student in Groningen riding a bike which no longer had handlebars) and those who ride very nice bikes which are well maintained (bank managers etc.).

Here’s the website of our local “bicycle-repair-man”:

Of several other local ones around the country:

And of a national organisation working as some kind of franchise:…’

By the way, David’s Dutch Bike Bits may be purchased online here
Here are selected extracts from the response I got from Mark Wagenbuur

‘….I hardly ever touch my bicycles. I have two, one in Utrecht and one in ‘s-Hertogenbosch.

 I remember the last time my Utrecht bike was in the workshop. That was a week before the Australians [who also completed the David Hembrow Study Tour and documented their experiences very well] came  to visit Houten and I was to guide them. I thought my bike had to look presentable. So I had it fixed. New coat protectors, new saddle, new tires (after about 10 years), got everything greased etc. That was a year ago now.

 The time before that was when my ‘fast binders’ snapped while riding  and got so entangled in the back wheel that it couldn’t even turn anymore, that must have been a year before that.  So I’d say it comes in the shop about once a year and I try not to touch it other than that. But I do fix little things, changed the batteries of my back light and just last week the saddle got loose and the front suddenly pointed upwards… very unpleasant… had to unscrew a screw, put it horizontal again and then I fastened the screw again. The sort of things you don’t get your hands dirty with.

 I would fix a punctured tire, but the last time that happened to me must be over 10 years ago. (and tomorrow no doubt… when you say such things).

The ‘s-Hertogenbosch bike is a similar story. I doubt that one has been in the shop in the last two years. It is 27 years old now I think. But I did some maintenance on that one… The original dynamo was slipping and that was because it didn’t turn so well anymore. When it snowed I didn’t have any light anymore. So I bought a new dynamo and actually exchanged it (two screws and two wires I think, about 10 minutes). Before that I actually put it upside down one day… I had to. There was something wrong with the chain for months but the noise it made became audible on the videos… I was too lazy to get it to a shop but one day I got brave and put it upside down. I opened the chain guard (I actually understood how to do that) to find a meter of ribbon people put around presents entangled around the chain and back wheel. I cut it loose and took it out and actually put some grease on the still original chain. Closed the chain guard and it was like new again… That must have been the most elaborate thing I ever did to any bike I ever owned…

So… really not much I do, but I do fix little things sometimes. But the bikes are so low maintenance that you hardly ever have to do something. I do not use services that you can call. I live within walking distance of several workshops. So I can pick and choose. Same in Utrecht. Even the parking facility there offers repairs.

He goes on to state that his partner owns a Mountain Bike which has to be serviced far more than any Dutch Bike (and gets constantly teased about as a result). This is because if you introduce 24 more gears, you introduce more components and more chances for things to go wrong. I own a Mountain Bike because I’ve always loved it, racing my Muddy Fox Courier as a child. I still like to potter along the South Downs Way and other trails around Surrey, Hampshire and West Sussex. However, there are many out there that would just like to go to the shops and get a pint of milk and thankfully there are a more few utility bikes coming on to the market, offering low maintenance, simplistic ways of getting about.

A blast from the past. The Muddy Fox Courier.

I leave you with a rare treat from the British Council film archive. Good to watch with a Gin and Tonic instead of tinkering with bikes in my humble opinion. Most of the country thinks the same way :)

How a Bicycle is Made (1946)

A Bicycle Factory ‘The process of manufacture is traced from the beginning; the design on paper and the raw materials. We see what goes to make the steel tubes of the frames, the handle bars, the gear wheels, the pedal cranks, the pedals, the spokes, the wheels and the hubs, until at last the complete bicycle is ready for testing.’


See Also

Why People in the UK Don’t Cycle No 1: Class

Why People in the UK Don’t Cycle No 2: Culture of Fear

Why People in the UK Don’t Cycle No 3: DANGER!

Why People in the UK Don’t Cycle No 4: Driving is Easier

12 responses to “Why People In the UK Don’t Cycle No 5 – Bicycle Maintenance

  1. I wouldn’t wish a Brompton tyre change on anyone, which is why I was willing to fork out for the Marathon Plus tyres last year and why I don’t mind their poorer grip. What I’d like to see is bike servicing and courtesy bikes to match what motorists get, although I’d be much more excited by the conditions which would be needed to make that economically viable.

    • I’m with you on Brompton tyres – I changed to Marathon Plus knowing that I would have no chance of being able to remove/fit one, but going to the shop every several years was a satisfactory compromise. I haven’t been disappointed – tempting providence I know, but I haven’t had a puncture since.

      As a by-the-way, I have spent much of the weekend researching online on Dutch universities for my daughter, approaching that age now. These are the “Honors College” international departments which teach in English and aim to attract a majority of non-Dutch students. On the pages covering transport/how to get there, they all apparently find it necessary to mention that “the most common way to get around [Utrecht etc] is by bicycle”. I guess if your primary target market is yanks and brits, that would indeed be necessary.

  2. Another reason people don’t ride bikes is that they’ve bought a mountain bike at Toys R Us or Tesco for £99 and wonder why it’s a heavy piece of rubbish. How many of us know such a person whose jaw drops when you say you’ve done 20 miles on your race bike, when they find cycling to the local shop and back a sweat inducing marathon?

    As for maintenance, I have a bloke for that, i.e. my husband. I have recently managed not to snap the end of the valve thingy what you put air in the tyres through – he’s not really let me forget that. My mountain bike, (which is expensive, light and used appropriately off-road) was squeaking a bit and the gears grinding, but after 30 minutes in his hands, it came back lovely and smooth. I would also let him do puncture repairs on the go etc. though I have to take him everywhere with me for that.

  3. Excellent post Jim, and I very much enjoyed the video which is of the old Raleigh factory. Unfortunately, and in large part to asset strippers in the 1990s, this factory doesn’t exist any more, and Raleigh now do little more than assemble bought in parts.

    You may like to know that one of Mark’s bikes is a Raleigh. However, there lies a tale. In recent years, Raleigh’s name was bigger here than in the UK, and they sold many practical bikes in the Netherlands (with “British” sounding names) which were never marketed in the UK.

    Just in the last few days we’ve heard that the Accell group, who already own Batavus, Sparta and Koga Miyata as well as many smaller and quite a few non Dutch brands, are buying Raleigh. It’s a shame that the name is being sold overseas, but at least it will be owned by a company which has some commitment to cycling.

    chestercycling: Unfortunately, smaller tyres, especially when narrow, tend to be more troublesome for tyre changes. Shops over here always have courtesy bikes. And actually, garages have courtesy bikes as well.

  4. Do you live out in the country?

    I’m not a huge fan of doing maintenance, either, and, like you, I’d rather pay someone else to do most jobs. I can change a tire perfectly well, but I don’t enjoy doing it. That said, living in the middle of Seattle, if I have an issue with my bike while I’m out riding, I can usually walk it less than a mile to the nearest shop, and let them deal with it. I don’t think this (the implied requirement that you should be a mechanic before you can ride a bike) is a valid reason not to ride in Seattle.

  5. Most stuff that happens to a bike en route is a piece of p*ss to sort out though.

    In contrast, the power steering went on our car this week, and the only solution is to limp to the garage, and turn it over to them for four days :/

    People have the idea that bike repair is going to be complex, possibly because we’re all so used to cars here. Incidentally, there’s a repair shop/bike hire place on Sale waterpark that will offer a courtesy bike, as I recall. Also, my local shop here in Manchester usually has one (last time, a striking green roadster).

  6. Having lived and cycled daily in the Netherlands, I can quite understand why the ubiquitous bike shop – the fietsenmaker – is still doing such good business and in no danger of being eaten out by mail-order sales and the big chain stores. Traditional Dutch upright bikes are lovely machines in many ways and beautifully adapted to local conditions , which is why the design has barely changed in a century. But God are they fiddly to repair! Rear-wheel punctures are a particular delight, I found: so many things hanging on the rear axle (coaster-brake arm; chain case; carrier; trapeze stand; mudguard stays etc.) that it takes you half an hour to get the wheel off, then another half hour to get it back on again, and even then you’ve usually put something on in the wrong sequence so you have to do it all over again because the chain’s making a funny scraping noise. I’m fairly proficient, mechanically speaking, but I still concluded that next time I’d hand it over to a shop and let them sort it out.

    Not that Dutch bike shops have a particularly good reputation overall: in the IT company where I worked the phrase “fietsenmaker-mentaliteit” was often used to describe a particular kind of negative, clock-watching, no-we-can’t attitude on the part of software developers.

  7. “Raleigh now do little more than assemble bought in parts.”

    It’s been a while since they’ve even done that. The bicycles are cartoned at the factories of origin in the Chinas.

    “Accell group . . . are buying Raleigh.”

    Raleigh is just a brand now, not a company. For many decades rights to use the Raleigh brand has been owned by multiple companies at a time, each with exclusive rights to a distribution territory. That is why there are models that are only available in certain countries, the companies that distribute them are entirely independent from each other, never mind having anything to do with the old Raleigh of Nottingham.

    Accell Group is simply adding another legal distribution territory to its current Raleigh holdings.

  8. Pingback: Fear of the unknown | At War With The Motorist·

  9. I have a Gazelle Dutch bike, and like Vocus Dwabe, find anything to do with maintaining the “rear end” a bit of a pain.

    I’ve been looking around for another bike recently, and came across this (no, I’ve nothing to do with Kinetics, except as an occasional customer):-

    Looks pretty low- and easy-maintenance to me.

  10. Pingback: Why People in the UK Don’t Cycle No 6 – British Cycle Infrastructure « The Lo Fidelity Bicycle Club·

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