My Dutch Bike – The Test of Time

The commute this morning (NCN2 at Worthing) with Brighton in the distance and the sound of traffic competing with the sound of the sea.

It’s now been about two months since the Batavus Old Dutch entered my life. It has therefore been through pretty much everything a British winter can chuck at it as well as the salty sea air of the south coast. It would be fair to say that my cycling life has been transformed as this wonderfully simple piece of machinery joins the dots of all the other aspects of my life too.

Firstly the basics; it is a 2009 model (bought new) comprising the following;

Old Dutch with other bikes that the British can't handle due to the fact that they are too practical.
  • 3 speed Shimano Nexus hub with grip shift
  • A coat guard (or dress guard depending on the mood one is in)
  • A kickstand that many British cyclists will keep forgetting is there (we’ve forgotten about sheer practicality)
  • A fully enclosed leather chain guard so The Wife doesn’t grit her teeth when oil magically appears on soft furnishings
  • A springy Selle Royal saddle. It needs to be springy due to the owners’ love of Trappist Ales.
  • Full mudgaurds
  • An integral lock – Put keys in to release lock and then frantically frisk yourself before remembering they still in the lock when you reach your destination. All you have to push the lock down, remove the keys and walk away. An additional chain that plugs into the lock to secure it to a stand is advised and can be carried on the rear rack when not in use.
  • Integral lights – these sadly are battery operated and not hub dynamo but I’ve been using them for 2 months and they don’t seem to be dimming at all. They aren’t amazingly bright but you won’t be going fast enough for this to pose a problem.
  • A heavy duty rack (please note that this rack will NOT take your finest Ortliebs. Dutch panniers are recommended and stay fixed to the bike – the idea being that you put your shopping bags or whatever straight in and pedal away.
  • Puncture resistant tyres with reflective sidewalls

It is not light. At all. It is a strictly utilitarian machine for cruising along at a steady pace carrying hefty loads. You wouldn’t enter a Ford Transit van into Le Mans so you wouldn’t enter a bike like this into the Tour de France either. It also hates headwinds, but then again we all do so that’s something else we all have in common. The handling is lovely due to the upright, arms out position allowing one to take in large gulps of fresh air (or not, London readers). The basic rule of thumb which I love is that if the handling is erratic, then you are cycling too fast. Slow down.

It must be stated that I’m not gaining maximum enjoyment from this bike on the 12 mile[ish] commute, not because it isn’t a joy to ride but because of the time constraints that my current routine imposes. Because The Boy requires his breakfast at 8am, I have to cajole him until The Wife prepares it so I can then bolt out the door to get to work for 9am. This is repeated in the evening when I leave at 5.30pm to have to get back for 6.30pm so I can bathe The Boy and give him his final feed before putting him to bed. Sometimes with a bedtime story about bicycle infrastructure in Groningen (which does seem like a fairy tale when read in the UK) or, if he’s been bad tempered, excerpts from John Franklin’s Cyclecraft.

All this means that I’m usually a bit sweaty (wearing a wind and waterproof jacket doesn’t help as they never vent enough). However, it must be reiterated that this is a fault of the constraints that my lifestyle has placed on the bike as opposed to being a fault of the bike. I could just say ‘stuff it’ and get into cycling gear to make a speedier commute on my road bike but I now find that with a helmet on and being back on drop handlebars makes me a noticeably more aggressive rider, chasing down others and being passed far too close by motorists that suddenly see me as an illegal alien in their environment. I’ve re-entered a testosterone fuelled Rat Race of the male cyclists’ creation.

However, it’s not just what this bike does now as what this bike will be able to do in the future. As the days continue to draw out, so will The Boys bath and bedtime. I’ll be able to cast off the waterproofs (but be able to keep them in the pannier as it usually chucks it down during the tennis at Wimbledon) and feel the warm sea air blowing in off gently crashing waves as I have a go at South Coast Cycle Chic. I’m going to purchase a front child seat shortly for leisurely rides along Worthing Promenade seeing as The Boy is now 9 months old. We’ll try and go a traffic free route so he doesn’t pick up any swear words. Or we could just immigrate to Denmark or the Netherlands and properly fit in.

In short, if you want a do it all bike with the added appeal of being lycra free that can take all types of loads, people or little people whilst sitting back and enjoying the view, then I strongly recommend a Dutch Bike or Roadster. The sheer get on and go appeal means that I’m using it for far more errands. And then finding excuses to run more errands.

Old Dutch on the train. The bike is more reliable than Southern Rail.
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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.

The Last Bike I Shall Ever Own. Probably.

Here is a sign. A beautiful sign. But I wonder what treats lie inside?

Yes, it’s Amsterdammers located under Brighton railway station! The magnetic pull of their range of second hand and new Dutch bikes proved irresistable. The shop is run by the very knowledgeable (and tall) Stefan Petursson who shares my bemusement at the very British obsession of playing ‘Let’s See How Many Cars We Can Cram Into A Town Centre Thereby Ruining It For Everyone Including The Motorists’.

Anyway, here it is, the Batavus Old Dutch. It’s an older model, just like its new owner, and it is probably the smallest frame size because the new owner is of,  what you might call, ‘lilliputian stature’.

This new acquisition has an incredibly reasonable price tag, 3 hub gears, hub brakes, built in robust lock, mudguards, comfy saddle, chainguard, reflectors in the right places to meet legal requirements and is bombproof. It can carry stupid weights at the rear and has an upright position to stop me crippling my back as the years progress. It also encourages me to slow down and enjoy my cycling again instead of turning up at work looking like I’ve just taken a short cut through a car wash. Oh, and I was able to test ride it in walking boots with not a quibble. When the Netherlands were considering a Space Programme to the moon, they were going to use a Dutch Bike instead of a lunar rover. OK, I made that last one up, but that’s what I would have taken.

I will be posting a full review after Christmas when the commuting regime starts in earnest but the best part is that it won’t be just about the commuting. It will be about the shopping and pubbing and librarying and carting The Boy..er..ing. All the things I should do by bicycle but don’t as the bikes that I own (with the exception of the Brompton) compel me to ‘dress like a cyclist’ and ‘be a cyclist’ as opposed to a ‘person on a bike’. It’s not that I’m against other types of bike, I adore and respect all types of bike (and cyclist for that matter). I just need one that for the rest of my life facilitiates practical cycling – ‘Citizen Cycling’ to coin a Copenhagenize phrase. Each to their own.

I am selling my KHS Alite 3000 mountain bike to cover the cost (2010 barely used model if you’re interested. It got rave reviews in What Mountain Bike but with a 7 month old son, I probably bought it 13 years too early). I was expecting to commute along the South Downs Way from time to time with wild abandon but the sleepless mights and ever changing and demanding schedules that enthuiastic fatherhood brings knocks that into a cocked hat.

It’s time to slow down and go Old Dutch.

Update

So, you want cycle infrastructure based on the Dutch model and Philip Hammond thrown on the fire behind me.....

Firstly, yet again a very big thank you for all the messages, debate and this wonderful blog post from Mark at IBikeLondon.

This is where we’re at so far as you deserve to be kept up to date;

Website & Forum: Under construction and the domain will be www.cycling-embassy.org.uk . This is obviously taking time (although to be fair, it was only set up on the weekend) as it is being hosted and created for free, but the best things come to those who wait. There are things that need to be sorted out such as editing capability and admin rights etc so it’s best to get it sorted out from the beginning. Anthony Cartmell, the creator is a cyclist through and through and his websites are as reliable and stable as the Batavus he rides. To assist, I may be learning Drupal as well as conversational Danish & Dutch.

So far I believe the website should comprise the following:

Mission Statement with key strategies/actions

A Forum

Document Library of Design Standards by Country

Map where people may report bad infrastructure (if we can find a server big enough) and also good infrastructure. There should be a facility that allows one to write why it works or doesn’t work.

Cycling Newsfeed

Suggestions always welcome

What you can do to help:

Whilst this is taking place, I’m collating design standards from the UK and other countries to put into a document library. If you can think of any links, data and info that you feel should be included, please let me know. This includes any urban planning and masterplanning documents or guidance that architects, engineers and designers out there might think are pertinent. Also, thanks to Freewheeler on Crap Cycling and Walking in Waltham Forest for this link to a very interesting document indeed.

What I especially want from you however is the following. Imagine you are sat on Santa’s lap – it could be Chris Hoy or Victoria Pendleton dressed in a Santa outfit. I don’t mind, whatever works for you – and you are asked what your wish would be for this new cycling campaign to achieve, what would it be? Basically, I’m developing a wish list and I need wishes. Wish away.

Onwards and upwards. In the meantime, enjoy your cycling and look out for the following:

Expert motorists who only need to clear the frost and ice from their side of the windscreen and nowhere else on their car (presumably so noone can see them operate a mobile phone).

Expert motorists who can drive well and truly under the influence of Christmas Cheer. Especially now the funding has been cut for awareness adverts.

Manhole covers. As my back wheel informed me twice this morning, they are very slippy.