Netherlands Travelogue: Work Cycles
Posted on 20 October 2008
Editors note. The Dutch bike business was in a funny place back in 2008 - and we imported two polar examples. Batavus - like its competitor Gazelle - is a large company that sells about 200,000 units a year - which is a remarkable number. However, they also own Koga, Sparta, Haibike, Lapierre, most recently Raleigh (and the list goes on, and on). In other words, they are largely an M&A company. Gazelle was in the same boat. Owned by Pon Group, who owns Cervelo, Santa Cruz (and the list goes on, and on) both companies saw severe cost cutting, including moving frame production to China. Workcycles, meanwhile, is an amazing company run by an American engineer and cycling nut who came to Holland to work for Phillips and realized that he could re-tweak and re-popularize some essential Dutch bikes that the cost cutters had cut (most especially, cargo bikes - and all made in Holland). It's a company we deeply respect and would like to revisit one day.
- February 2016
Our journeys take us at last to the very center of European bicycle culture, the Netherlands. The Netherlands stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the bicycle cultures we visited throughout Europe. This is, perhaps, because the culture is so engrained that it is simply taken for granted - a luxury that is still not attainable even in Denmark, where the bicycle culture is nonetheless well matured. The Dutch approach their bicycles with the same sort of depth practicality that can be seen in their architecture and design. When a country lives below sea level, necessity is a proactive imperative. In other words, the Dutch anticipate problems well before they happen. They’re good at that - and it shows in their bikes. They’re so good at it, in fact, that Amsterdam is filled with bikes well over thirty years old that continue to run and simply will not die. A perfect example of this is the bike parking station near Amsterdam Centraal train station. Four stories of endless bikes parked helter skelter in a parking garage made especially for bikes. Breathtaking.
In Amsterdam we met with Henry Work Cycles, a lovely little shop in the Jordaan district that sells the famous Bakfiets products. We spent nearly four hours toodling around on all of the cargo bikes that Henry specializes in. Henry may be the most charismatic proponent of Dutch bicycle culture ever, and its probably because he is not Dutch, but American. It’s not hard to be seduced by Amsterdam. Every night, as the sodium lamps turn on their yellow hue and the leaves fall over the canals, thousands of cyclists silently weave their darkened silhouettes through the narrow streets of Amsterdam on their upright bicycles. It is a sight that simply overwhelms us everytime we visit. Despite this near-utopia, the Dutch are not terribly self-reflective about their bicycle culture. Perhaps it is the cold rainy mornings and the fierce wind, but as the Dutch wake up to the worlds admiration, it is people like Henry that best remind and re-inject the very romance of living in Holland on a bicycle.
From Amsterdam we moved to Heerenveen, home of Batavus. Since Batavus is our flagship brand, we spent nearly eight hours solid in meetings. In other words, we didn’t break out the camera once. Nonetheless, we have some interesting developments up our sleeves. Since North Americans, like the German Batavus market, tend to ride a bit farther to work, we decided to develop our own special version of the classic OmaFiets that we will call the Fryslan. The Fryslan will feature a five speed transmission and Schwalbe cream coloured tires. It will also feature a classic Batavus font that we resurrected from an old 1950’s catalog. The Fryslan is designed to show North American consumers the long history of Batavus while offering a classic platform tuned for North American cities. We are also desiginging another fantastic bike called the Breukelen. The Breukelen represents the evolution of the Dutch bike and will feature a seven speed hub, full drum brakes, a hub dynamo on a ligher aluminum frame. The Breukelen will come in a chic matte black that is nearly log0-free and super clean. Batavus themselves have introduced several exciting bikes this year, including a grey delivery bike with cream tires. Cool stuff.
From Batavus we moved on to Koga, producers of the most carefully built and empirically tested bikes on earth. Being somewhat germanic in nature, it appears that when the Dutch want to build the world’s best bike, it is not a matter of opinion, aesthetics, or consensus, it is a matter of pure scientific testing. The Koga plant is a huge science lab where each part is tested, each bike rigorously quality checked, and each new development assessed, re-assessed and then assessed once more. Its well know in Holland that Koga tests products for many other companies, because the Koga test is the worlds most rigorous test.
Very few companies are famous for building the worlds best track bike while at the same time building the worlds best and most famous touring bike, and while making the worlds best city bikes at the same time. Koga may not be a bike that one sees often in the mean streets of Amsterdam, but the Dutch admire Koga as the best bike on earth, and Koga especially builds bikes for city cyclist who want a riding platform that is luxuriously comfortable, lightweight, and that can multi-task beyond the city and into leisurely country rides.
From Koga we went right to the cusp of the German and Dutch border, to the tiny town of Ulft, where Basil bags are created. Perhaps the greatest flattery to Basil is that they spend a great deal of time fighting people who choose to rip off their patents. This takes up a great deal of time, but nonetheless, Basil still produces what is undoubtably the most fashionable and durable bags for city cyclists. This year the lineup features a great deal of Dutch country themed fabrics, which are huge in the European fashion world for 2009.
Simply put, the Dutch have the ultimate cycling culture, so ultimate that they don’t even know its there. Yet, behind the scenes there is a century of carefully derived and proactive expert-knowledge that, despite its apparent simplicity, is completely impossible to replicate. Companies like Batavus listen to their consumer, and while companies in North America are still struggling with things like chainguards, companies like Batavus are innovating in areas as small as the kickstand, to areas as large as geometry, lighting, and reliable electronic assist.
The reality of the matter is that the Dutch will always be light years ahead of any other cycling culture, whether it is in the development of their bikes, or the everyday fact of daily bicycle usage. It is an admirable, and luckily, an exportable culture. We’ve been planting Dutch bikes on North American soil for several years now, and the results have been remarkably fruitful. Cities in North America were never made for bikes. One answer is to get more bicycle infastructure. The other answer is to provide better bikes. It's a chicken and egg question, but where bike lanes don't exist, the safest thing to offer is better bikes.