Sunday, 4 May 2014

The missing link; Quality bicycles!

There are multiple "Cycling Dutchmen" in the United Kingdom campaigning for better cycling conditions. Berno Brosschot moved from The Netherlands to Wales in the mid eighties. He kept quiet about cycling for over 25 years, but now he sells Dutch hybrid bikes locally.

In the latest Get Britain Cycling Report, Berno points out that the Dutch not only have well designed cycling infrastructure, but that the Dutch have better bicycles too. In his view, this is a vital missing component in the drive to get the British people to use bicycles more often. Below a slightly edited version of Berno's article, as published in the report. To illustrate the article, we've put all pictures of British bikes on the left and Dutch bicycles on the right; enjoy! 

Going Dutch, All The Way: The missing link

I prefer the term "use bicycles" rather than cycle. There is no way to differentiate in English between different modes of using a bicycle, as there is in the Dutch language. Fietsen is the word for everyday bicycling, while anything involving speed is called wielrennen. Off-road cycling, as a recent addition, is left as mountain biking. The Dutch will use different bicycles for these activities and often own more than one type.

The lack of a proper word means cycling tends to be associated with sport and speed, and therefore in the minds of non-cycling people with sweat and hard workFor the British public to adopt the bicycle as an everyday means of transport it needs to be disassociated from cycling-as-a-sport. The need to de-lycrafy is paramount. Any reference to successes in the Olympics or in the Tour de France should be avoided as it can only put off non-cyclists. Getting a successful Tour cyclist to encourage more people to use their bicycle to travel to work would provoke derision in the Netherlands.
Over the past 30 years the British have either stuck to their drop handle tourers or adopted the mountain bike as a general bicycle. Meanwhile, the Dutch have been developing their bikes to a fantastic standard. How the UK has completely missed out on these developments remains a mystery to me. Most bicycles ridden in the Netherlands are designed and built there as well. About half a dozen manufacturers are competing for their share of a critical buying public, and this has driven them to excellence. 

Look at the picture above; which bicycle is fit for purpose for your child to cycle to school; the red BMX "British-style" or the blue Dutch bike immediately behind it?   

The Dutch take it for granted that their bicycles will come complete with adaptable steering, mudguards, chain guard, stand, lock, carrier and lights, and that they can choose between men’s, women’s or low-instep models, all in different sizes to suit their height. They expect their bicycles to last at least 15 or 20 years, even when left outside and without much maintenance. The picture on the right is the Dutch hybrid of "the other Cycling Dutchman"; Eric's bike lasted for 20 years and was even used to cycle coast to coast across both America and Australia!

Above all, the Dutch expect their bicycle to be comfortable. Any photograph of people on bikes in the Netherlands will testify to that: they look relaxed and happy. Conversely, pictures of British cyclists, helmeted, clad in lycra and crouched over their handlebars (as pictured left), somehow never convey the same feeling. The words pain and effort come to mind.

The bicycles you usually see in Dutch towns and villages are the traditional backpedal-braking variety, without gears and really only suited to that flat country. There is another variety that the Dutch use for longer distance commuting, leisure trips and camping holidays. To the original model they have added handbrakes, gears, suspension and lightweight components. However, this has retained the comfortable upright position. These modern, good looking bicycles are called sport hybride, or hybride for short. 

These bikes have no equivalent on the British market. There is not even a name for them, as they do not fit in the usual categories of road bike, tourer, mountain bike, city bike or hybrid (that is, the British variety). As the Dutch hybrid bike is equally suited to the hills and mountains as to the flat, windy countryside, the Dutch take their hybrids everywhere they go, for example when cycling the Dutch version of the London-Land's End Cycle Route (see picture). These Dutch hybrid bikes would serve as an ideal general bicycle for British people.

I have been importing used Dutch hybrides from the Netherlands since June 2012, to sell in my local neighbourhood in the Llŷn Peninsula in Wales. I take them to small local fairs and festivals, in schools and village halls, etc. The overwhelming response has been one of great surprise that a bicycle can be so comfortable, light rolling and easy on the hills, and there is also admiration that a 10-year-old bicycle can look as good as new

At these events about 200 people have tried out the bikes, and I’ve sold more than 20. That’s a good response in what is a relatively poor, sparsely populated area of west Wales with plenty of steep hills and hardly any regular cyclists! Now, if this could be translated to the rest of Britain. I firmly believe that British people must be provided with better bikes if they are to start using bicycles again in greater numbers. I have often heard the complaint that the bike bought last year has not been used much because its forward leaning position is uncomfortable, wouldn’t take them up the hills and is now rusting away in the garden shed.

There are too many bicycles on the market that are of poor quality, have the wrong shape or are ill-equipped for everyday cycling. Neither the public nor the bicycle shops know much about other types of bikes or bike-use other than mountain biking or racing.  Too often I have seen bikes sold that are unsuitable or too small for the rider. Adjustments are usually impossible or very limited.

The public needs to be better educated about the different types of bikes and what they should be used for.  It should be far easier to find suitable bikes for daily cycling. I know of only three shops in the UK that sell Dutch hybrids. The necessary equipment should be standard, not an accessory. It should also be easier for the public to find out about available bikes and to compare them with the help of an independent advisory and testing body.

There is a pressing need for the pro-cycling campaign to widen its agenda to include the bicycles themselves. I don’t have the wherewithal myself to introduce better bicycles into the UK on the scale needed, but I sense a golden opportunity for someone, somewhere. It would improve the situation in Britain in various, important ways. 

Let’s imagine that the Dutch type hybrid did become widely available, allowing bicycling that did not involve sport and speed. Lots of people cycling in a stable, upright position while having a good view of their surroundings would result in friendlier, safer environment. 

Cycling traffic in towns would not be as frantic as it currently is. It would lessen hostilities between cyclists and car drivers because cyclists would not be travelling at the greatest speed possible, and their position would enable them to make better eye-contact with drivers. The gentler general pace would make it easier for beginner cyclists or elderly people to join in the traffic. With their good range of gears, hills could be tackled in comfort.Because of the stability of these bikes there is no need for helmets, as you are unlikely to fall off. For the less able there are low-instep models that make getting on and off the bike easier. The presence of chain- and mudguards, together with the relaxed pace makes it possible to travel in everyday or work-clothes.

From an early age, and on through all stages in life, children in the Netherlands get properly fitting bicycles, which are safe to ride on the roads. The wobbly affairs that are sold as children’s bikes in the UK should be treated as toys, not as a means of transport. See how the boy on the left is struggling to get his pedal ready on his cramped bike during a Bikeability course.   

Again, we should be looking at the Dutch models: stylish enough while giving a stable and upright positionDutch children are also fortunate in not having to depend on school buses. Just suppose that every child in Britain, say from the age of 14, was provided with a real adult Dutch type hybride? In the space of a decade the number of non-cyclists would plummet. The bicycles would easily outlast their school days and take them into adulthood.

The cycling community needs to be persuaded that the Dutch hybrid is the perfect bicycle for the modern British public. Some change of perception is necessary, as obsolete and fixed ideas about bicycles are widespread. For a start, there is the typical British obsession with the weight of a bike, and the disbelief that a fully-equipped bicycle which is a few kilos heavier than their trusty steed can be a delight to ride, even uphill. By now I’m getting used to people lifting one of my bikes before even trying it, and then expressing surprise when they do give it a go!

Again and again, upright bicycles appear in magazines photographed in sepia colours and described variously as traditional, vintage, and old-fashioned, only suitable for summer frocks and tweeds. Even the manufacturers themselves give their upright bicycles a nostalgic golden-oldie look with names like ClassicSomehow, the upright bicycle is not seen as the real thing, or at most only suitable for level city use, like in Cambridge or Amsterdam

This shows a total lack of understanding of what makes a proper bicycle. The fact is that well-designed upright bicycles can be kitted out with all the modern technology that is nowadays available and, fitted with a good range of gears, would serve very nicely as a multipurpose bicycle.

Publications and campaigns that aim to normalize bicycle use should use pictures of upright bicycles and not of drop handle racers like British Cycling does in it’s 10 point plan ‘Time to Choose Cycling’. Although Get Britain Cycling’s magazines contain some pictures of good examples (especially those taken in the Netherlands and Denmark!), they are otherwise full of pictures of unsuitable, ill-fitting or sportive bicycles.  

Efforts should be made to replace the ubiquitous bare mountain bike with the upright bicycle as the notion of a normal bike in the public’s mind. The awful latest tv advert by the biggest bicycle retailer Halfords, trying to portray family cycling as a Wild West adventure, is a case in point. In the very popular Haynes Bike Book the chapter about how to choose a bike urgently needs rewriting.

It is vital that the bicycle itself is included in any discussion about cycling in the UK. I am not suggesting that providing high quality, comfortable bikes to the British public is all that is required. But I am convinced that all the fantastic improvements in infrastructure everyone is fighting for will fail to entice the public to make regular use of bicycles if they can’t enjoy the ride.

Berno Brosschot, "Cycling Dutchman" in Llŷn, Wales. Find Berno on Facebook or send him an email to find out more about Dutch hybrid bikes

Berno is not the only "Cycling Dutchman" who noticed the lack of Dutch-style hybrid bikes in other countries. Cycling Dutchman Meindert Wolfraad lives in Australia and developed his own Lekker Bikes brand. His bike designs bring a a fresh twist to the Dutch-style hybrids, getting popular in Australia and New Zealand!

If you live in the UK and wish to purchase a new quality Dutch bike, pay a visit to the Dutch Bike shop in Littlehampton or Flying Dutchman Bike in London

What about going for a ride on a Dutch hybrid with one of our "Cycling Dutchman" guidebooks?

Cycling in  Amsterdam and The Netherlands - The very best routes in the cyclist's paradise makes you travel beyond Dutch cliches like clogs, windmills and the Amsterdam red light district, allowing you to truly explore the lowlands. The book features 1064 kms of routes and has special chapters explaining the unique Dutch cycling-minded traffic rules and its cycle route signage systems; 164 pages, colour, wiro bound, fits in standard handlebar bag, see also

The London - Land's End Cycle Route Book is designed for those who LOVE cycling, but don't like traffic. The book takes you onto the most beautiful cycle routes of southern England, including the Camel Trail, Devon Coast to Coast Route, Bristol and Bath Railway path, Thames Valley route and many more! What makes the book unique is that the route is completely continuous, including detailed directions and local knowledge all the way. Get inspired; choose your favourite route sections or go for a full summer holiday adventure; 164 pages, colour, wiro bound, fits in standard handlebar bag, £ 15.99, see also

Other popular Cycling Dutchman blog articles:

Explaining Dutch cycling infrastructure:

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