The best city bikes on the market.

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Aug. 25 2009 10:13 AM

I Want To Ride My ($1,400, Dutch-Style) Bicycle

Testing out bikes for the urban environment.

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That said, the same attributes that limit the Batavus also make it an utter joy. The heft creates inertia, smoothing out the ride. The elongated wheelbase handles potholes and curbs with ease. The forward placement of the pedals allows a more natural body position when you're riding at a casual pace. Put it all together, and you get the Rolls-Royce of bikes. You just won't find a more luxurious cycling experience. To ride this bike on flat ground is to hear a voice in your head let out a "Wheeeeeee!" that is without end.

Slate's D.C. office is full of commuting cyclists, so I lent the Batavus out to a few of them and asked their impressions. They all acknowledged the bike's evident craftsmanship and the lushness of its ride. But there seemed to be a philosophical stumbling block that prevented them from fully enjoying their time with it.

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It turns out my colleagues view urban cycling as a Darwinian contest, in which the cyclist who weaves most daringly between the delivery trucks is the glorious victor. Thus they chafe at the configuration of the Batavus, which does not encourage or enable aggressive pedaling. I, on the other hand, like to pretend I'm a European—rolling around the city at dawdling speed, occasionally dinging the bell to alert inattentive pedestrians to my presence. If you're like me, you'll adore the Batavus. If you approach cycling as a vicious blood sport, you likely won't.

To address your final question: Yes, these bikes cost a pretty penny. But any new bicycle will set you back at least a few hundred dollars. Most won't have fenders or full chain cases. What they will have is vastly inferior engineering and materials—which will mean a shorter lifespan and more frequent repairs.

As for used bikes: You can find some—not all—of a city bike's features on a decades-old Raleigh or Schwinn. (I'm told by reliable sources that you should steer well clear of newer models from these brands.) But those old bikes are harder to find than you might imagine. And I think you'd be surprised to see how much people are charging for them on Craigslist.

Considering that a truly well-made bike will last a lifetime and provide tremendous utility and pleasure, it's not absurd to consider it a worthwhile investment. Still, I admit it's a hurdle to drop a thousand bucks or more on an item that is notorious for getting stolen. All I can suggest is that you buy an excellent lock.

Electra Amsterdam Royal 8i

Which reminds me: I actually borrowed a fourth bike to test for this story. The Electra Amsterdam Royal 8i replicates the traditional Dutch look—with an all-black frame, a headlight, and a luggage rack. But the bike is manufactured in Asia and imported by the California-based Electra. At $970, it's an attractive-looking, slightly less expensive alternative to the Batavus.

I'd love to tell you how the Amsterdam rides. Sadly, I can't. The first night I had it, I locked it up to the bike rack in front of my apartment building. Not being an experienced bike owner, I stupidly used a cable lock instead of a U-lock, and the next morning the bike was gone. A thief had snipped the cable, which lay limply on the ground.

This was mortifying, as the bike was on loan from Electra. Luckily, they were very cool about it. They didn't hold the robbery against me. Or make me pay for the missing bike. Or accuse me of faking the theft so I could fence the bike to fund my heroin habit. I'd like to publicly thank them for that.

And if you're out there, you lousy thief: What did you think of that eight-speed internal shifter?

(Note: I'm grateful to Fourth Floor Distribution, which serves as a North American distributor for Abici, Biomega, and Batavus, and which paid shipping and assembly costs for the models I borrowed.)