Going Dutch

As North Americans demonstrate their desire to pedal to work, bike manufacturers take inspiration from the Netherlands.

For bike commuters on this side of the pond, Amsterdam is something of a Shangri-la: a city where 40 percent of all trips are made by bicycle, kids learn bike safety in schools, and two-wheel parking lots abound. North Americans tend to ride for recreation, not transportation, but urbanization, rising gas prices, and concerns about climate change are triggering new interest in practical cycling. As a result, a growing number of manufacturers are introducing Dutch-style city bikes here, part of a larger commuter trend sweeping the industry.

“The Dutch bike is the icon of practicality,” says Rob MacDonald, co­-founder of Vancouver’s Jorg & Olif. After setting up shop in Canada three years ago, the company brought its version to the U.S. market last November—the same month Electra Bicycle Company launched the Amsterdam series. In May, Seattle Bike Supply began importing the Old Dutch, a 100-year-old model, from the Netherlands-based company Batavus. Defined by a particular geometry and retro-chic style, Dutch city bikes feature oversize wheels to cushion potholes and high handlebars to allow for comfortable erect posture. The vertical framing also gives riders a better view of the road. While high-performance racing bicycles embody an aerodynamic Lycra-clad aesthetic, the updated commuter classics bypass the road warrior in favor of the fashionable flaneur.

“Style is a great way to get people to ride in the United States,” says Benno Baenziger, Electra’s co-chief executive officer. “Our goal is cycling the way they do in Europe—as part of everyday life.” Available in archetypal black, the Jorg & Olif and Amsterdam series (which also comes in primary colors) encloses chains in sleek casings to protect clothes against damage and grease. Internal hub gearing systems make shifting easier and conceal bike components from view. A skirt guard in the rear wheel prevents pants and dresses from getting caught in the spokes.

Simplicity is another staple of Dutch city bike design. Coaster-style brakes, which work by pedaling backward, allow for effortless stopping, whereas built-in wheel locks “make it really easy to run into a coffee shop,” MacDonald says. (The Jorg & Olif three- and eight-speed models have conventional hand brakes, a concession to city hills.)

Dutch-style bikes reflect growing public and private interest in commuting, according to Tim Blumenthal, executive director of the trade association Bikes Belong. Commuter-bike sales increased about 12 percent between 2004 and 2007, according to bike-industry consultant Jay Townley. In 2007 most of the major manufacturers —including Trek, Specialized, Cannondale, Raleigh, and Giant—introduced new models for shopping or riding to work. “That wouldn’t have happened five years ago,” Blumenthal says.

Major cities such as Seattle and New York have announced plans to install at least 100 miles of new bike lanes and paths; and in March, senators and representatives reintroduced the Bicycle Commuter Act, which would provide financial incentives for employees to ride to work. “People are thinking about their carbon footprint,” says Tim Rutledge, of Seattle Bike Supply, explaining Batavus’s decision to enter the U.S. market. “It’s the time for city bikes, for sure.”

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