Saturday, 12 December 2015
The bicycle version of the everyday car
Car. What sort of image does that describe. If I add the word family car (this was the first result when I searched the word car into google images), would that have made a difference? Probably not. Some might think of sports cars or racing cars on specific race courses, but for the most part, we think of sedans. It has all the features that make it a practical means of transport. It has a good speed, good efficiency, comfort, some protection, no need to hunch over, easy to use brakes, no need of maintenance all that often, and you probably have little idea how your car works, you don't really need to care. It even has luggage space, lighting system, warning system, IE the horn, and a lock built in. It will last a long time, the sedan I usually drive is more than 10 years old. Still works, no real need of replacing it. It took only a couple hours to learn how to drive it from scratch, my first lesson driving was in that car, I took a few laps, making turns, all at about 10-25 km/h. The next day, I drove it all the way into my family garage and went up to 90 km/h on a freeway. Clearly easy to learn.
So why are bicycles the kind they are in North America? They are basically comprised of a frame, brakes, handlebars, wheels, pedals, chain, gears and a seat. Picture here for a race bike and here for a mountain bicycle:mountain bicycle. Could you imagine if you were to buy a car and taken to a wall with a bunch of car accessories on it, a lock and key for it, lights, which you have to detach and take with you when you park because they are so easy for a passerby to steal them, even the ability to add luggage space. And we have to look on craigslist or websites just to get an enclosure for your transmission. Clearly, cars would never have progressed past steam powered toys of the rich and famous had they not been the practical machines that the Volkswagen Beetle made them to be, among other car types.
When I was 7, I believe for my birthday I got a shiny new red bicycle. But it wasn't like how you would treat a car. It was a toy, something I rarely used, in fact I rarely used bicycles at all before a couple years ago. The only time I used bicycles was on a few recreational trips riding around a small RV camp a couple times in the summer, and on low speed rides in parks on trails and sidewalks with my dad or mom or sometimes other relatives, and the walk/ride to school week, which functioned exactly like that. Ride/walk to school for exactly one week and never do it again for a whole year. Granted for a lot of my schooling I was a lot further than Dutch primary school children usually rode, more like over 15 km, but for the couple years I went to a more local school, it was almost never done by cycling there. It wasn't like how a 16 year old looks if you buy them a car and promise a fuel allowance. I have no plan of getting my own car for a long time, I have plans to get the standard license that most adults get, most of the Dutch do to.
The Dutch have no sort of issue with this. Walk into a bike shop with a wad of cash and buy absolutely nothing except the bicycle you pick and ride it home with everything you could need. You can ride it to the store, lock it with the included lock, get groceries, put it on the front or rear rack, and ride home with it at night. This is because of the way the bicycles are designed and built. Most of the parts are metal. The frame obviously. The handlebars too. But also the fenders, chaincase is usually also metal but plastic is also popular, the racks are considerably thicker than what we usually make them to carry. 50 kg is the rated capacity for most rear racks, and chances are, it can carry much more than that. For the rear fender, they even usually have a bit of a bumper.
It's built to last. You can leave one of these omafietsen (the Dutch word for an upright bicycle, this type is the step through kind) outside in the snow, rain, ride through salty windrows outside and ride it everyday for decades and it needs only a small amount of maintenance in the shop, maybe 5 times. It won't look incredibly good after that, but bikes with rust patches are a good deterrent against theft.
Other features include a wheel lock and a strong kickstand. This means that you can kick down the stand, lock the bicycle and leave it where it is, and almost nobody will have thought of stealing it. These things are between 18 and 25 kg, usually closer to 25. Nobody wants to pick up something like that and drag it for maybe over a kilometre to somewhere you can secretly saw through the wheel lock. You don't pick up a locked car because it's heavy and it would be absurd to try. Of course you could try breaking the lock, but that is not that easy given the positioning of the lock, and tampering with the back lock is suspicious, and having anything but your hands and a key for a few seconds with it is abnormal. It makes it very convenient to lock. Some models, like the wheel lock I own for my bicycle, has a slot for a chain lock or cable lock (I picked a chain) to attach the bicycle to some non movable object. But for a 25 kg bicycle, for just leaving it for a few minutes, or for a couple days at a guarded railway station, it should be fine. Besides, most people have bicycle theft insurance and not that much emotional attachment to any individual bicycle. They are so generic that you want to go for the more rare and expensive bicycles you can find, like a new looking Koga or race bike.
And if you want to, these locks often come with slots where you can also use a chain or cable to wrap the bike around a fixed object, which I recommend doing if you are in a city like NYC or are securing your bicycle outdoors for more than a couple hours or if your bicycle is fairly unique. My bike is within the context of being in Edmonton, I transformed a hybrid bicycle into a more practical bike with a lot of features, that wheel lock, dynamo lights, a luggage rack and fenders, bent back handlebars, new seat, even got a chainguard (not full chain protection, but something for my pants, and if I was a girl or Scottish, something for a skirt or kilt), and a few other features, unique. I expect to get some money to get a kickstand that is more rugged and works better than the one I have within a couple weeks. A bike with these features included couldn't be more ordinary, making up 95% of bike sales in the Netherlands, but in Edmonton, it is nearly one of a kind. Maybe a couple dozen others in the city probably have bicycles like mine, 200 maximum I say.
Other things that make this work well is how you can see the bicycle (and how well you can see the path/road) are the lights and reflectors. Never any recommendation to wear high viz. Instead, there are included with your bicycle, a front and back lights, the back light generally has a standlight (a capacitor system so that if you stop for any reason, it will continue to be light for a few minutes, can be recharged quickly), the front one may or may not have one, and of course, a dynamo to power it. Sometimes there is a battery for the rear one, but most bikes have a dynamo powering both. You have a choice between the bottle style, easier to fit onto a bike which did not have a dynamo, like what I bought, and has a little roller against the edge of the tire, or a hub dynamo, in the front wheel, which has less air resistance but will always take some efficiency off your cycling, even when you don't need the lights on. Either one works well, it really depends on what you want.
There are reflectors, generally built into the lights, which is how I got rid of the reflectors that came with my bicycle, often there will be two for the back, with one reflector and the back light built into the fender and the other reflector attached to the luggage rack., as well as a reflector going all the way around the tire rim on both sides. This is actually pretty neat. Most bikes in North America, Australia and New Zealand, plus the UK have reflectors built into the spokes, with just one or two small 4 cm by 3 cm square sort of blobs. That works decently well when the wheels spin, but not when you stop. And it's still blurry. The full circle means that it won't be blurry, and that if you stop, it still looks like a bicycle. Nothing says bicycle than two circles about a little over a metre apart (measuring from the centre of the circles) It is really noticeable. And of course reflectors in the pedals. Bicycles in North America are almost never sold with lights, and those you are offered at the store are battery powered, is a cheap and unreliable kit for a dynamo and if battery powered, pretty easy to steal, at least the front ones. Batteries can work if you are really careful with them, and carry spare batteries, but they are not convenient, not easy to use and if you have to get them separately, it is a really annoying problem that further discourages cycling without trying to.
There is equipment to keep yourself and whatever you are carrying clean while you ride, just like the windshield on a car. Fenders, to stop mud and water from splashing up, often with a good sized mudflap on the bottom, on the rear as well. Can't have mud splashing onto the guy behind you either. The front one is usually around 100 degrees of an arc, and the rear one is close to 180 degrees of an arc. Look at a picture and you can see why. The chain is fully enclosed, which keeps your pants, skirt, and objects hanging from behind you on your back or on the luggage rack from getting tangled in it, also keeps objects from getting in the chain itself, which is why it needs so little chain maintenance. Also, there are often coat guards, often called skirt guards in North America, that keeps objects hanging from your back or on the luggage racks, coats and of course, skirts, out of the spokes, removing one more annoyance. Mine are plastic, but you can also get leather ones, which do look pretty neat.
The actual inner workings of the chain, gearing and brakes is pretty interesting for any bicycle, but these Dutch omafietsen makes that these can make cycling on a regular basis possible. Something often promoted by cycling campaigners and cities, especially vehicular cyclists, is what they call an ABC quick check, meaning air, for tires, b, for brakes, c for chain and crankarms, and quick for any quick releases. The Dutch avoid any need for this sort of check by having puncture proof tires and often including an airpump with bicycles in your purchase, I actually got my airpump in this way, it was included with the purchase. They have very reliable brakes, and often back pedal brakes, sometimes only back pedal brakes (I don't recommend that, the chain can break sometimes (pun not intended), and if that happens, how do you stop the bicycle?), making it not needed to check them each time. The chain and crankarrms are sturdy, reliable, and tightly bolted together (not the chain being bolted together, the crankarms), so they aren't likely to snap. And they don't have quick releases at all for almost all bicycles. The OV Fietsen is one of the rare exceptions because of the necessity for the seat to be easily adjustable, but almost all Dutch bicycles use screws and bolts, not quick releases. The front wheel can't be easily taken by theft, and it certainly can't be allowed to come off while you're riding it. If you don't have quick releases, you have no need of the quick check.
OK, back to the transmission and brakes. They use an enclosed chain as I mentioned before, and the chain itself is usually of higher quality than North American chains. You might replace them once per year, if that, and given that you are often riding each day, that's quite a reliable chain. And maybe a little oil a couple times per year. Again, for something often used each day of each year, that is a good chain. It doesn't have the side to side flexibility that can wear down a chain used in a derailleur gear, because there is no derailleur gear set. Instead, it has either hub gears or no gears at all. The no gears and just a coaster brake is a common sight around Amsterdam, where people just need something cheap and reliable. I would suggest that if you live anywhere hilly that you get a bike with gears, like in Trondheim or Limburg, but Edmonton is pretty flat, and gears are more of your preference. I took off the other gears on my front derailleur, so that I only have 8 speeds, but that still works very well for me. And given that Edmonton doesn't do that great of a job of clearing in the winter, going slower without falling over is a good thing to have.
The brakes are either coaster brake, a roller brake or a drum brake for the most part, some childrens omafietsen do have rim or disk brakes because they're cheaper and you won't be riding them for more than a few years for the most part and not that long of a distance on an everyday basis, but most people have an enclosed brake. Coaster brakes are common, maybe over half of the bikes have a coaster brake. Some have roller brakes or drum brakes, which kind you get is up to you, they're all good choices. If I had the chance to repick which bike I got this year (my bike pre July was stolen), I would pick coaster brake (plus a drum or roller brake on the front), but it's up to the rider. Childrens bikes often come with coasters, because they are cheap and easy to remember. It makes it a reliable bicycle. Also worth knowing is that some bikes actually use a rod shaft instead of a chain, but I am not sure about how well those work.
The seat is more comfortable, certainly more comfortable than the saddles that come with road bikes, which kind of look like trying to sit on an upwards facing knife, or sitting on a 2 by 4 with the thin edge up. Not something most people want to do. Except the fools on youtube (wheres my challenge or the dudesons). You should feel much more comfortable riding on a Dutch saddle than a road bike saddle, or even a hybrid bike saddle. Lots of different options, like a gel pouch in some, it's up to you to decide.
There is plenty of luggage space on Dutch bicycles. They come with either a rear rack, front one, or both, (having a rear one means that a thief has more to pick up if they try to steal a bike locked with a wheel lock). They are very sturdy. It is actually legal to ride on someone's luggage rack (if the cyclist is fine with it obviously). They're called boy/girl friend racks for a reason. They have enough capacity to hold a full jerry can on the back, or a bunch of groceries, which you can also do with panniers which are one of the few accessories a lot of people do get. For your shopping, you should be fine (the nearest commercial area to my home is about a kilometre away, so perfect distance for when I want chocolate, or am having a birthday party, and it's accessible on not terrible shared paths and quiet side streets) for capacity. If there is a front rack. they also usually include a steering damper, which while not impacting your ability to ride and control the bike, the load won't turn over as much or as fast as a bike would without it.
The handlebars are higher than they usually are here, up to 30 cm higher than the saddle, and they are curved back, so you are upright when you ride. Hence the name: upright bicycle. I have curved back handlebars and I really like them. I wish my cables were a little longer so that I could use the even more bent back ones, but I'm fine with what I have now. No need of hunching over to ride the bike, just like you never hunch over to drive a car.
And of course, the bell. They come in all sorts of styles, sounds, volumes and colours, but the classic silver colour ding dong style is a very popular one, and is generally the one fitted to a bicycle. Have to have a way of warning people of your presence or of an emergency, though in the case of the latter, shouting will also work well. You can either speak or use a bell here I believe, but it's just more convenient and more concise in my opinion is bells were used. Passing left would be something I would be confused by, but a ringing bell is familiar to everyone in the Netherlands and Copenhagen. Ringing a bell in Amsterdam is like a train horn. Don't step into the cycle path if you hear it, and get off it of you are on it. Many tourists learn this the hard way.
The bikes with features like what I described is the ubiquitous bicycle that makes cycling as useful a means of transport as a car is, and aside from the infrastructure, is probably the most important means of permitting the population to ride their bicycles. I mean even in the 1960s in the Netherlands when roads were built left right and centre for cars, this bike style helped a bit in keeping the rate of cycling above 10%. And it is the bike that people use for their daily travel. All things come with a why, and I hope I have given you the why of why they use this bike.