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 an 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.’

Enjoy.

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

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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

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.