“What is remarkable is that Dutch bicycle makers, for a major portion of the twentieth century, seized the opportunity to explicitly not improve the bicycle. From our modern perspective, so preoccupied with innovation, this may be difficult to fathom, but it must be understood primarily as an ingenious marketing strategy.” – Zahid Sardar
During the Velo-city conference next month, attendees will have a rare opportunity to visit Gazelle's Innovation and Production Centre in Dieren, where they have been manufacturing the iconic upright Dutch bicycle – incorporating contemporary designs, technologies, and production methods – since September of 2015.
Participants of this excursion will get to tour the modern facility – the largest in the Netherlands – and get a peek behind the curtain of one of the oldest manufacturers in Europe. Royal Dutch Gazelle have been in operation for 125 years, making their tried and true city bikes, as well as adapting designs as the market demands.
What is it that has helped sustain the popularity of the traditional Dutch bike in the Netherlands, while countries elsewhere in the world have evolved to a more sporty approach to design? The truth lies in its simplicity, which has changed very little from the original safety bicycle of the early 20th century. Dutch bikes are built for utility, to be used day in and day out to get from A to B as efficiently as possible.
The design is not meant to invoke speed; it’s not flashy, or lightweight, but shaped for all the practicalities of a nation that does almost everything on two wheels. Fenders, chain casings, skirt guards, coaster brakes, dynamo lights, frame locks, internal gears, and racks are all compulsory . Whether commuting to school or work, a trip to the local market, or meeting up for drinks, these bikes are made to take everything a trip can throw at them, and still be reliable enough for the next journey.
Our own family of four has enjoyed the effortless riding on our own fleet of city bikes for a number of years, reveling in the benefits that go along with that. Travelling on our bikes has become less of a chore, with the upright position limiting strain to our wrists, shoulders, and back, and making the ride much more pleasant. Having spent some time on cumbersome mountain and hybrid bikes, there is something truly understated about pedaling along as though sat in a comfortable chair, applying minimal effort to get around town, and arriving calm and refreshed.
Aside from a reduction of stress on the body, this riding position has an even greater benefit. Have you ever wondered why collisions are seemingly rare in the Netherlands despite steady streams of bikes filling nearly every cycle track across the country? In addition to the obvious infrastructural advantages, sitting upright significantly improves sightlines, which is generally how the Dutch navigate their streets: regularly making eye contact to let fellow riders know their intention. They are far more aware of pedestrians crossing near them or sharing pathways, and of the motorists they interact with. Having the ability to be readily aware of your surroundings goes a long way to creating a more pleasant riding experience.
Perhaps the most notable feature of Dutch bike design is they are genderless and virtually ageless. While some are said to be for men and women, it is entirely common to see men riding city bikes with a dropped bar, without batting an eyelash.
The Dutch simply ride the bicycle that makes the most sense for them – and the same can be said for children – with models that are barely distinguishable from one another. In fact, the availability of kids’ bikes in The Netherlands should have North American manufacturers hanging their heads in shame. Catering to every height until fully grown, there is a correct fit for everyone, with manufacturers recognizing that a child’s need for an upright bike doesn’t go away from age five to ten, ensuring even preteens can ride to school, the park, and their friend’s home in comfort.
Gazelle and other companies have also added e-bikes to their fleets, acknowledging that with an aging population, citizens want to remain mobile even when endurance starts to wane. Today, one in five new bikes sold in the Netherlands is electric assist.
Touring the factory where these workhorses are built is sure to be a highpoint of the conference, along with seeing them in action on city streets. While many other places in the world have departed from this timeless design, only to recently realize their benefits, Gazelle has been tirelessly building these machines for over a century, which has been enjoyed by generations for their simplicity, ease, and perfection.