zondag 23 juni 2013

The Dutch city bike: a total rip-off

rip-off (rpôf, -f)
n. Slang
1. A product or service that is overpriced or of poor quality.
2. Something, such as a film or story, that is clearly imitative of or based on something else.
3. A theft.
4. An act of exploitation.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

I'll take the bottom-up approach. This post is not so much on why the Dutch cycle, but on the ripped-off machine they use. It will clarify some of the most common misconceptions on Dutch bikes and how they're used.

rip-off (rpôf, -f)
n. Slang
4. An act of exploitation.
Well, that's what we do with our city bikes, we exploit them until they're totally disintegrated. It's not supposed to get any kind of maintenance. Maybe a new tire if really really necessary. Maybe a drip of oil, if it's skrieking too much.
I don't know how many Dutch bikes end into Dutch canals. But in Utrecht, the canals have to be bicycle-cleaned annually, to prevent damage to boats. Be careful with swimming in lakes and canals in urbanized areas. Bicycle remainders can be very sharp and they try to take revenge for their abuse.
Dutch bikes are treated worse than dogs...
...and if you're a bike, it's better to stay with the herd, than to wander off.
rip-off (rpôf, -f)
n. Slang

3. A theft. 

700,000 bicycles are stolen in The Netherlands on a yearly basis, about the same amount as the two largest Dutch bicycle factories (Gazelle and Batavus) produce together (coincidence?!). In Amsterdam, you run the chance of 10% that your bike will be stolen. In the rest of The Netherlands, this is 'only' 1 in 20. In a 2001 report on criminality in 17 western countries, The Netherlands is the most criminal country...due to the high number of bicycle thefts. Otherwise, criminality would have been quite average overhere.

Funny enough, high bicycle thefts are also reported for Denmark and Sweden, eventhough they have less bikes...but it's yielding similar high overall criminality numbers. So far on so-called safe Skandinavia...

rip-off (rpôf, -f)
n. Slang  

2. Something, such as a film or story, that is clearly imitative of or based on something else.

In The Netherlands, one can choose from any type of bicycle one can imagine. From very innovative and original, to the worst type of copy cat rip off. Just some examples outside sports bicycles.

A velomobile, like my own Mango Sport, or pick from at least 4 other Dutch models.
...countless recumberants....
...endless types of 'bakfietsen', I've never seen this one in real life...seems quite sturdy...
...or folding bikes. Folding bikes and trains have a good relation.

These models have at least some innovation to them and every now and then, a totally new concept pops up in these fields.

But what's the most popular pick in the NL? The vast majority of bikes are city bikes, or 'normal' bikes (i.e., other bikes are supposedly abnormal in The Netherlands). I quote Wikipedia on its definition:

A European city bike, or simply city bike is a bicycle designed for frequent short, moderately paced rides through relatively flat urban areas.

Very nicely, the quote contains exactly the elements I've described in previous posts on Dutch Cycling (see my top menu), as these concern:
- short, moderately paced trips
- flat urban areas.

If you want to see how these bicycles were and still are typically used, watch the 1973 movie 'Turks Fruit', (Turkish Delight), the best-visited Dutch movie ever (sorry). It has a very Dutch bicycle scene, from 1:13-1:53 in the link.

But to be honest, I really can't think of anything less innovative than the Dutch city bike. Cars, camera's, clocks, computers, even stoves have more innovation than Dutch city bikes. It hardly changed for over 80 years. It has the innovative level of, say, a leather shoe. For shoes, this isn't much of a problem, but the city bike can benefit from a few improvements. If you take a closer look at it, most Dutch cyclists accept technology from the previous millenium, dating further back than the Ford-T era.

The 'modern' version of a city bike would typically look like this for males:

Basic Dutch city bike male model since the sixties, which wasn't very innovative already back then...
...being hardly different from a 1895 US advertisement...it's a total rip off from an old (Anglo-saxon?) model...
...and it has a female equivalent. No gears, no handbrakes. Sturdy bikes have coasterbrakes. Anybody who still believes that hills are unimportant, or that winds are as bad as hills: I kindly invite you to bike 200m or 5-10% uphill on a typical Dutch sturdy bike without gears. If you'd manage, you'll break the chain in the end (been there, did it, done it). Also, feel free to go downhill with a coaster brake only. It'll be a deadly experience. None of this would happen with strong head or tail winds.
...nowadays, these city bikes are being replaced by omafietsen (granny's bikes), also for males (students). This bike is obviously not about going fast. Note the simplicity of the bicycle. It's a total rip off from a pre-WWII model that lasted into the fifties...it lacks any kind of innovation or technical improvement....
...I'm one of the few and proud owners of an original late-40ies Dutch Gazelle luxury grampy's bike...and it has a comfortable Brooks (UK) leather saddle, which, hardly changed, can still be bought. Sitting comfy upright, it's ideal for recreational family cycling, or...city cycling.

So, the Dutch city bike frame is a rip off, only a tiny bit more sturdy. Then what about the add-ons?
Traditional Dutch city bike manufacturers (e.g., the two largest Gazelle and Batavus, each producing ~400.000 bikes annually) only assemble frames but don't make any technical item themselves (innovative or non-innovative items). They're imported from other countries. Typical brands are Shimano (Japan), Brooks (UK) or Sturmey Archer (UK). Producing a million Dutch bikes year after years is not enough to develop some of your own technical items?!
And was it always like that? Euh, shame shame, yes. Just look at some details from my 40ies Gazelle:
A Sturmey Archer (UK) 3 speed shifter...
...a Lucifer front light (Swiss quality: the only front light surviving 70 years of abuse).
Maybe this pre-WWII front candle light would be Dutch then (from my aunt)?

No, sorry, Riemann, Germany.
There is a problem with this imported stuff. The frame might be Dutch sturdy quality, designed for the harsh Dutch conditions (see 4. Rip off: an act of exploitation). The Japanese or the British did not have such insane abuse in mind while designing their brakes, gears or chains. Those were more designed towards incidental recreational or sports use, by people who actually care about their two-wheeled machines.
rip-off (rpôf, -f)
n. Slang
1. A product or service that is overpriced or of poor quality.

People like to describe the (not-so) typical Dutch bicycle as a Dutch sturdy bike. Well, sorry, but sturdy bike is a contradictio in terminis. By default, a bicycle is a flimsy, light weight thingie. A truly sturdy bike would weigh 50-75kg in my view. Sturdy, but not very practical. There are some (Dutch) attempts to come up with something better. The problem is that they focus on the frame, but the true issues are with the (imported) remainder of the bike:
BSP Metropolis...a sturdy ALU frame....
...ends like this...Well, the frame is still intact, but oh, we forgot to improve on the wheels...
Sturdy frame again, which carried 100,000s of Dutch parents with their kids over the years:
The old-fashioned full steel reinforced 25kg Batavus Stabilo....
I've got one, but oh NO!!! what are all those cables and wires doing there? Ready to be ripped off.
Did you ever see a car with cables and wires dangling outside?!
Van Moof M2  3.1: Another approach to solve some bicycle robustness issues.
But euh, where do I put my shopping bags, kids or girlfriend?! Another design mistake: the saddle is as high as the handlebar. Wrong position for city cycling.
So, what's wrong with Dutch bicycles? Well, pretty much everything in terms of quality, except for the frame. Let's have a closer look:
At least 16 points are wrong on city bikes, I wanted it to be 13, but I failed.
  1. Rearlight. The rearlight is competing with the frontlight to achieve the fastest break down possible upon purchase. Below, the city bike of my neighbors son, after 1.5 years at college. What rear light? Note the broken stand too.
  2. Tire repair set and hand pump. Tire repair set is just ready to be stolen, but can never be removed so easily to take it with you. One can do anything with a handpump, except pumping your tires, although this has improved over the years.
  3. The typical Dutch carrier. This might be a Dutch invention. Much more sturdy than any carrier I've seen in other countries, but still not sturdy enough to carry your girlfriend over and over again. It typically breaks off at the axis. Why?! The trunk of my car never breaks off.
  4. Saddle. Still a ridiculous piece of bad design in 2013. Never had a comfortable saddle that survives rain and sun for longer than a year, even if the bike was parked outside only during office hours.
  5. Handgrips. Tend to get loose from the handlebar.
  6. Handbrakes and bell. If your Dutch bike is blown away again by Dutch winds, because its stand isn't good enough, it's always handbrakes or bell hitting the ground first. Result: broken bell or bended and poorly functioning brake. A well-functioning brake seems pretty important to me. Never buy a bike with handbrakes if you want to have something sturdy. Also, forget about your bell, it's broken soon after the lights. I know a lady who got a fine in  the 60ies for not having a functional bell. She refused to pay and had to go to court. The judge asked how she would draw attention in traffic if necessary, without a bell. 'TRRRIIING, TRRRIIING!!!', she yelled through court, much louder than any bell, and she didn't have to pay the fine.
  7. Cables and wires. Who on earth thinks it's a good idea to 1) have brake and gear wires at all 2) to put them on the outside in such a way that handlebars of every other parked bike hook into them, ready to rip off?!
    The problems with cables and handbrakes were already fixed in 1947: look at how the brakes are not sticking out of the handlebar. No brake cable, but much more sturdy brake rods.
    Look at the broken bell...it had a beautiful Gazelle logo on it, but it broke off. The plastic clip next to it, was for my LED light. The British gear shifter has a stupid cable.
  9. Handlebar. I think every Dutch healthy male student has experienced at least once that, by accident, he can break off his handlebar from his co-called sturdy bike. E.g., when jumping onto the sidewalks.
  10. Frontlights. Amongst the first things to break down spontaneously. Failure by lamp, rotting contact points, wires or rusty dynamo. The law had to be adjusted to allow for LED lights clicked on clothes (ah, an innovation!, but not from the Dutch cycling factories).
  11. Tires. Bicylce tires were of horrendously bad quality. Would you accept a flat tire on your car, say every 2,000km? THE major innovation on Dutch bikes is coming from Germany: the Marathon anti-puncture tire from Schwalbe. Wheels and spokes: Why do we still have spokes?! These are a weak piece in the system. Just look at some other pictures in the post.
    Did you ever try to change a rear tire on a Dutch city bike? Or span the chain? Truly bad pre-WWII technology. This problem is screaming for improvement.
  12.  Mudguards. They rust away, bend or break off. Bended mudguards are really irritating, chafing against tires or wheels.
  13. Treadles. Ah, another improvement: they finally got rid of the forelocks, which was an inunderstandable piece of primitive technology that lasted deep into the 80ies. Forelocks tear trousers apart. Cycling with a worn out forelock is really funny. The solution is incredibly easy: a square axis end instead of a round one...
  14. Chain. See 10. If you have a few hills on your track, or if you cycle fast, the chain has to be re-spanned regularly. Practically impossible due to primitive technology, see next point.
  15. Chain protectors. It makes all technology inaccessable, even changing the rear tire becomes a tedious piece of work. The chain protector it cannot be removed without breaking. Still, it's necessary to keep your clothes clean.
  16. Lock, some improvements have been made over the years, but most locks still loose from thieves within 2,5 min.
  17. Coat protectors. These are the most flimsy pieces of plastic one can think of. I'm not going to spend more on them.

9 tips for buying a good city bike

  • Buy a cheap 2nd hand. It'll be stolen or broken within a week anyway.
  • Select one that is stupid simple. No cables or wires please. I.e., no handbrakes or gears. Nobody uses a city bike to climb hills, so why would you? Buy a white and red battery click-on LED light, because the lights on the bike never work.
  • Pick one with an upright position: handlebar higher than saddle. This allows you to have a good overview, so one can swirl like a real Dutchman through traffic.
  • Put the saddle low. One of the great misconceptions is that the leg should be fully stretched on a bike if the treadle is down. Well, it should, but not on a city bike. The Anglo-American authors of 'The Undutchables' are so arrogant to think that they know better than the Dutch themselves. They claim we're sitting too low on our city bikes. But remember, we're not winning the Tour de France on a city bike. Some things, like city cycling, should be left to true experts, and not to a few expats coming from countries with ridiculously low cycling percentages. The reason that the saddle has to be low is safety. In the city, one has to be able to quickly put one full foot (not just half a toe) on the ground to prevent falling during an emergency stop or turn. So, to hell with the knees on a low saddle, but thou will survive city cycling without helmet!
  • Make sure that it can transport bagage, kids and/or girlfriend, without breaking the carrier. The carrier should be 80mm titanium or stronger.
  • Forget about good quality lights, mudguards, coatguards or bells. They won't last anyway.
  • Come up yourself with a saddle that can withstand rain. Covering it with a plastic bag is the only solution to date and we're living in the 21th century now...
  • Come up yourself with brilliant ideas to improve the rear axis, rear tires and the chain problems, or take a course on yoga. Or just don't bother about technology at all and let do all repair. Or look at your bike as a disposable unit: Flat tire? Get a new bike.
  • Buy at least three locks of highest quality for your bike. The value of my locks was always higher than the value of my city bike. Park your bike next to a more expensive one, or at least next to one with less locks. Always connect the entire bike to something else, e.g., a streetlight. Or you'll have to 'borrow' another bike from someone else, once yours is stolen. Or buy another one from a junkie for 10 euro's at the railway station.
...and finally, you should know how to use your expensive lock....
Due to the city bike rip-off, it's very hard for manufacturers to invest into innovation of true city bikes (I'm not talking about recreational bikes). People, especially students, prefer to buy 2nd hand and if they buy new, it'll be the cheaper bikes. They are unwilling to pay for maintenance of a cheap piece of sh!#.
What would be great innovations? Sometimes, they pop up every now and then, but they don't conquer the city bike easily. Single sided suspension to easily change tires, maintenance-free cardan shafts, axis-integrated dynamo's, integrated lights or Ventisit saddles are some innovations I could envisage on true city bikes to improve robustness, but they are too expensive to date. The upright, 'too' low saddle position has to remain. The Van Moof design is a start, but not radical enough.
I expect that the old fashioned Dutch city (granny) bike will stay available for another 25 years without innovation.

6 opmerkingen:

  1. If nobody writes a reaction, then I'll start one myself. Someone put me on reddit.com and kabooom, 1600+ reads in 24hrs on this post, previous record was 600 something. Mainly USreaders, thanks guys and girls!
    I just returned from a conference, where I had 50 persons in the audience, what a difference.

    But appearently, my Dutch audience doesn't think it's anything special ;-)

  2. I read the article as being self-evident. For me there was no real new information, things i did not know or at least did not expect, but then again, im part of this bicycle culture. I take it this article is primarely meant for readers from another country for whom this is strange and interesting stuff to read about.

    That is why i did not reply with comment. No replies does not mean your work is bad, not interesting or useless....just means that when you first published it the wrong target group is reading it.....but it will be around on internet a long time, and search engines will likely pick it up when someone is looking for this kind of information. Could be tomorrow or years from now.

  3. yeah, Quezzzt, you really made me feel alone! Actually, the discussion unfolded on reddit.com and with 1900 views on this post, I got sufficient attention. The weirdest reactions overthere, people doubting whether the 80mm titanium would have been serious or not. Peoplecomplaining that I (Dutchman with an original old bike) completely missed the point on Dutch bicycles, because it's such fun riding a machine the same way as could have been done 100 years ago. I lost counting the numberof points that guy missed :-)))
    Anyway, thanks for your late reply, and maybe I'll pop up tomorrow as a supporter. Good luck!

  4. Hi Magic,

    A late reaction from me, I was on holiday. I agree with Quezzzt, the article is self-evident, though it's a massive piece of work as usual. My only comment is on the carrier, you are absolutly right about the 80 mm titanium, but it will be an expensive solution and probably has to be tailormade. As I grew up in the Netherlands myself I am known with all statements in your post, wich was as interesting as usual.

    Greetings, Adri.

  5. Hi Bobslee, Welcome back. Carriers are an underestimated technical challenge indeed. Did you have a nice holidays? Looking forward to your next post with beautiful picture, expectations are high!

  6. The solution is to not go live in the bigger cities. That solves the problems of parking out in the open and the theft rate is also a lot lower (as is insurance).