I remember the first time I saw a couple in Amsterdam sharing a bicycle. She was perched sidesaddle on the luggage rack above the rear wheel, one hand around her date's waist, the other holding an umbrella to deflect the Dutch drizzle. He was whispering to her over his shoulder, the light breeze fluttering his hair. Perhaps the pot I'd smoked earlier that day was gauzing my brain and turning me soft, but right there and then I fell deeply in love with classic Dutch bicycles.
You see them all over Holland. Thick and sturdy. Solid black paint. Primly rectilinear. In other parts of Europe, the surface aesthetics may change, but the key elements of the "city bike" are always the same:
1) Upright posture. You sit with your back perpendicular to the ground instead of hunched forward over the handlebars. It's a far more comfortable and relaxed position. Because your head is up high, it's easier to see over car roofs in traffic. It's also easier for the cars to see you.
2) Fenders. These semicircular arcs hover just above the tops of the bike's tires. They prevent any up-splash when you ride through puddles and also lend the bike a rather dignified appearance.
3) Fully covered chains. Greasy metal links are hidden far out of sight, behind a chain case, meaning you can ride to work in a suit without schmutzing your trouser cuffs.
Although the New York Times ran an article this spring claiming that Dutch-style bikes—with their old-school looks and utilitarian panache—are the latest must-have accessory, most of America hasn't yet cottoned on. It's nearly impossible to find Dutch-style bikes in typical American bike shops, which generally carry only mountain bikes (with fat, nubby tires and beefy suspensions designed for bumpy trails) or road bikes (with super-skinny tires and ram's-horn handlebars designed for miles-long stretches of smooth suburban pavement). To get your hands on a European city bike, you need to find either a specialty shop that stocks them or an out-of-town distributor who'll ship one to you.
As I'm in the market for a bicycle suitable to downtown Washington, D.C., I called one such outlet (Fourth Floor Distribution in Toronto) and asked to borrow a few different models—each equipped with the three key features listed above. Would the two-wheeled love affair I'd sparked while on vacation in Holland translate to my workaday life back home? Or would I feel like a pretentious prig as I pedaled around atop an overpriced fashion statement?
My first test bike was the Abici Grantourismo (estimated retail price: $950)—an Italian-made bike that's a bit lighter and sleeker than its Dutch cousins. Though it's a well-constructed, high-quality bike with near-artisanal Italian craftsmanship, the purpose of the Abici is not transportation, per se, but signification. It's a means of conveying the impression that you're en route to hang with fashion models at a bar in Milan.
With its exquisitely stylish colors (the one I borrowed was teal), its battered-leather seat, and its minimalist design, the Abici turned heads wherever I took it. When I parked it on a sidewalk by an outdoor cafe, several people paused to look it up and down with a covetous leer. "You know you want it," I whispered under my breath. At least three different women stopped me while I was riding it to compliment my taste and ask where the bike was for sale. Gents, if you're looking to meet ladies, this is the bike for you. Though it now occurs to me that a similar result might have been achieved—at roughly the same cost—if I'd slung the latest Birkin bag over my shoulder.
(By the way, I specifically sought out bikes in a style Europeans refer to as "step-through," and we here in the States refer to as "women's." Step-through bikes are much easier to elegantly mount and dismount, they allow you to stand up in comfort when at a stoplight, and they eliminate all risk of brutally racking your testicles. The fact is, that crossbar on men's bikes doesn't serve much purpose if you're not a performance rider.)
The Grantourismo has a single speed, which means that fewer things can go wrong with the chain. It also means there's no lower gear to click into when you begin to wheeze halfway up a steep incline. Given D.C.'s relatively tame terrain, this never became a major issue for me. But if you live in a hilly city—or if you're just a fan of mechanical advantage for its own sake—you may find the absence of additional gears annoying.
My biggest problem with the Grantourismo: It has a coaster brake. If you torque the pedals backward they instantly lock up, skidding the bike to a stop. This is totally fine—except when you need to start moving again. You can't spin the pedal backward to a spot where your foot can get good leverage for that initial pump. Instead, you have to lift the back wheel slightly off the ground, and pedal forward in place until you've got things aligned. This is an incredible pain if you make frequent stops at intersections. I'm ruling it a deal breaker.
Next up was the Biomega Amsterdam ($1,400). The Biomega's killer feature is that it has no chain. In the chain's place is a driveshaft—a slender metal rod that turns like a table leg on a lathe, connecting the bike's pedals to the rear wheel's hub. It's a miniature version of the driveshaft in your car, which delivers power from the engine to the wheels. Because the driveshaft is one solid piece, and fully enclosed, it will theoretically never need servicing and never need to be relubricated. It's a pretty clear step forward in the evolution of the bicycle and will surely become more common in the years ahead.
It's also very cool-looking. It's almost startling to see a bike without a chain, and like the Abici, the Danish-made Biomega turned heads. In this case, they were slobbering bike nerd heads. One guy who saw it (he was wearing toe clips) begged for a test ride, which I happily granted him.
Despite its futuristic design and terse Scandinavian styling, the Biomega isn't all that different from an ordinary bicycle once you start pedaling it. The driveshaft doesn't make for smoother shifting between the eight speeds. In fact, the shifter sometimes felt a bit kludgy. The Biomega may well be a dream when it comes to reliability and will no doubt appeal to those who get all geeked up over new cycling technology. But for $1,400, I expected bike nirvana, and I didn't find it.
My third test bike was the Batavus Breukelen ($1,150). Here at last was the iconic Dutch bicycle of my mind's eye. Batavus has been making these things for about a century and seems to have mastered the art. It was all there: the thick black tubes, the refined posture, the sturdy luggage rack (where might sit my imaginary Dutch girlfriend, her legs a-dangle).
Dutch bikes are designed to withstand the elements without deteriorating. Everything is internalized so as to be hidden from the weather: The chain is in a case, the brakes and the seven gears are tucked away inside the two wheel hubs, and all the cables are fully insulated. This bike can sit outside in the drizzle for decades with very few ill effects.
Which is good, because you'll have no choice but to leave it outside. Carrying it up a flight of stairs is nearly impossible. The Batavus weighs a staggering 47 pounds, and the elongated distance between its wheels makes it difficult to maneuver in a narrow stairwell or fit into a small elevator. That extra weight is less than ideal for climbing hills. And the pedal placement doesn't help such climbs, either. Batavus puts its pedals further forward than they are on most bikes, which makes it nearly impossible to stand up and stomp down when you need extra oomph.
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.
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.
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.)