Posted on 14 February 2017
Curbside may have started by the side of the curb converting racing bikes into city bikes, it may have spent years as a storefront building legitimacy with core North American bicycle brands, but our first moment of self awareness was when we decided to import Dutch bikes.
Importing Dutch bikes was never intended to be a moment of self-awareness, it was never done for the sake of fashion (we didn't know we'd kickstart a North American wide trend), it was done because we were listening to our customers from the repair shop and the retail floor.
THE REASON FOR DUTCH BIKES
Practical transportation wrapped into an icon
Peter putting the frame in the jig (they make all their tooling)
It was 2006 and every bike on the market featured a minimum of 21 speeds, a hunched-over position for long-distance recreation riding, and if you wore a dress, Japanese denim, or tailored pants - forget about it. With their exposed drivetrains, these bikes sprayed oil and ruined clothing. If you weren't into "sporty" or dressing sporty just to ride a bike, you probably weren't walking into bike stores, and this is still true for most bike stores today.
Except for our customers. Our customers were weathered Toronto Annex cyclists who rode before it was popular. They were city cyclists but due to our supply chain, we couldn't connect them with real city bikes, the best we could do was recreational hybrid bikes. However, in the repair shop these recreational bikes came back constantly. Exposed cables rusted and needed to be replaced every year ($40), new chains and freewheels would wear in a year of riding ($80), and because everything was so finicky, these bikes needed a tune-up every year ($80), or two ($160). Our customers were right to feel like something was wrong, and they were vocal about it. As a peace offering, we lowered our labour costs, but that just devalued our mechanics. These guys were working way too hard making the wrong bike work right.
IMPORTING DUTCH BIKES
Disrupting North American transportation with the oldest tool
Water based powder coat. Non-toxic, environmental, and tough as nails.
Feeling a bit helpless, we did what any bike store would do. We asked our suppliers if they would be interested in selling us European bikes. This was a time in the bike industry when high-end carbon fibre racing bikes were gaining popularity and like the eye of Sauron, that's where the bike industry kept its vision. Looking back, we can guess why for two reasons. The first is cultural. In North America, Southern California runs the bike industry and they view cycling as "sport," whereas our customer viewed cycling as transportation. The second was macro-accounting. The bike industry didn't look at micro-markets like Toronto (or Canada), and to this day it still doesn't. So, unless we did something ourselves, we were stuck.
So, in 2006 we did something absolutely reckless, we bought an entire container of Pashley bikes. (Back then no one take us seriously unless we bought a whole sea container). That was roughly x200 bikes with little assurance that they would sell other than blind faith and hope. These bikes had upright positions, low maintenance internal gears, rust-resistant powder-coated frames, full chaincases so you could look dandy, and they were handmade in the UK. They were everything our customer needed! What couldn't work? They looked lovely!
PROVENANCE VERSUS QUALITY
'Made in Europe' needs to be more than a talking point
Frames ready for assembly
And so began something of an ontological journey. Pashley's were nice, but they were inextricably tied to England's class system. Ultimately, they were posh bikes for occassional rides, and much of the component spec had to do more with British provenance than quality. The five speed hub on the Pashley models never worked, and many frames weren't always welded perfectly straight. We needed the genuine article.
The Dutch don't tie their bikes to class. If anything, bikes are the great social leveller, since rich or poor, you all ride the same heavy black bike. What they lacked in romance they made up for with quality (such is the nature of Dutch provenance). These weren't bikes meant for indoor storage in a Notting Hill coachhouse, they were designed for multi-decade outdoor storage in a climate where it always rains and the salty North Sea continually threatens. Such is the case with brands like Achielle.
DUTCH BIKES - MADE IN BELGIUM
History and quality untouched by the accountants
Typical street-scene in Antwerp.
But, there was a story before we found Achielle. Our journey began in Holland with two of their top brands at exactly the wrong time. We started importing Batavus and Gazelle bikes at the exact time that two unfortunate things were occuring in the Dutch bike industry. The first was a large series of mergers and acquisitions that turned every small village bike manufacturer into part of a stock-listed company. The second was the accountants running these mergers. They couldn't possibly understand why the entire bike was built in Holland when it could be made much cheaper elsewhere. And so we witnessed a sad reality. Shareholders became the customer rather than the hardy Dutch cyclist, and quality became increasingly questionable. Plus, the accountants didn't really understand why they were selling to a tiny bike store in Toronto. Lack of entrepreneurial foresight, a definite lack of support, and the writing was on the wall. Our customer wanted the general article, something authentic, and we made it our mission to find it.
So, was it possible to find a made-in-Europe Dutch bike that was committed to Dutch quality? We scoured Holland until we finally tossed in the towel - nothing was left unscathed by their scorched-earth mergers and acquisitions. Then, on a trip through Belguim we realized that the Flemish speak Dutch, they have the same bike culture as Holland and you could mistake Antwerp easily for Amsterdam. (They also have better food). So who makes their bikes?
NOSE-TO-TAIL PRODUCTION (AND QUALITY)
It's all in the details
Half Dutch bike, half French racer. Only in Belgium...
The answer is yes, and that company is Achielle. Like Pashley, they make their bikes completely by hand in Pittem, Belgium (near Brugge and Antwerp). They've been doing this since 1946 in the shadow of the Dutch, and much to our surprise, we were told that they used to make over 10,000 frames a year for large Dutch companies before these companies decamped to China. We had not only found a real Dutch bike in Belgium, but the source of many of the bikes we still see riding in Holland.
Unlike Pashley, Achielle coat their bikes with far more chip and rust resistant finishes, and use parts that are more concerned with quality than provenance (their provenance is that delightful Belgian sense of stern Dutch quality and a French elegance). Besides England's Pashley and Sweden's Skeppshult, Achielle is the last man standing when it comes to nose-to-tail European production, and of the three, Achielle is certainly the highest quality (the Swedes are close but the prices are obscene). The Achielle Craighton, for instance, is the finest crafted city bike we've seen.
INVESTMENT-GRADE FOR LIFE
Democratic design, aristocratic feel
That's Achiel on the headbadge, before he had his first coffee.
The great thing about Achielle is that, like Brompton, they've achieved a scalability without surrending to mass production. This means they can produce a perfectly built bike for under $2000 and do so with multiple colour and spec options. And, because their shop floor lies right outside their office, an AutoCAD drawing can turn into a new product very quickly. And, the excitement to create is tangible. The original owner, Achiel has passed the business onto his grandsons who carry the tradition with a notable hipster flair (bikes like the Sam feature road bike geometry with low maintenance internally geared parts, and no one does stuff like that!). But the tradition continues. They still draw their own steel tubing (who does that anymore?!), braze it by hand, and use the highest quality finishes we've seen. Built to last a lifetime. Or two.
So, why Achielle? Because you want a beautiful bike - made right - that lasts a long time through proper frame finishes and parts selection, a bike that is perfect for the short-burst errands that make up 90% of most city trips. A bike that takes clothing protection and low maintenance seriously, a bike that is gloriously comfortable and despite its democratic origins, almost aristocratic in feel.