Josh’s Top Ten Features of a “Real” Dutch Bike
Many bicycle companies are now using the terms “City Bike” or “Dutch-Style” to label their “Commuter” or “Utility” models. Sadly, even though these bikes are often said to be based upon or inspired by “real” Dutch bikes, they’re often lacking many essential features, which would otherwise make the bike complete and ultimately enjoyable and practical. A traditional Dutch bike is a “rain-or-shine, night-or-day” bike for getting you wherever you need to go comfortably and conveniently within the town in which you live, all while wearing normal clothing and shoes and carrying whatever it is you need to carry. Additionally, the bike will last for decades amassing minimal maintenance cost. Below are the top ten features to look for in a bike that all ad up to making this possible.
1. Upright/Comfortable Riding Position: Most of us do not “race” to work, so can benefit from the rather normal riding position of a Dutch bike. You ride sitting up straight, as if you were walking. It is really a pleasant way to ride around, being able to look all around easily, instead of being forced to stare at the ground. Many of the traditional “Roadster”-type bicycles feature ergonomic traits catering towards seated riding. However, with a low enough first gear, even rather steep hills are able to be conquered without having to get out of the saddle. There are other Dutch bikes though, like the Workcycles Secret Service models and others, that have slightly different geometry and ergonomics allowing out-of-the-saddle riding while maintaining the classic look and upright riding position. These models tend to be more popular here in San Francisco, due to the steepness of our hills.
The Dutch are tall people in general, so traditionally their bikes are rather large by other standards. Thankfully, every Dutch bicycle manufacturer also makes frames in average and below average sizes and many are very suitable for people 5’ 2” and shorter.
2. Fully Enclosed Drive Chain/Chaincase: Traditionally, these chaincases were made from stamped steel, or a textile cover wrapped around a steel frame. Most modern Dutch bikes use a plastic chaincase which is lighter, quieter, and not prone to rusting or denting. These keep dirt and water off the chain and keep grease and grim off your clothes. It is not necessary to roll up your pants or tuck in your shoe-laces when you have a chaincase; and when combined with skirt or trouser guards over the rear wheel you can safely ride with a long dress or long coat without fear of it getting caught in the moving parts of the bicycle. An added benefit is the drive chain lasts longer and requires less maintenance.
3. Internal Hub Gears: The first planetary hub gear for bicycles was introduced in 1898, well before the derailleur. This was a 2 speed hub offering a low gear, and direct drive. In 1902, the now-familiar Sturmey Archer 3 speed came into production. Many modern-day bicycles still come with Sturmey Archer 3 speed rear hubs, and even though over a Century old, the basic principle still works and is highly appropriate for our day.
Nowadays however, we have a plethora of Internal hub gears to choose from, ranging from 2, all the way to 14 speeds! Dutch bikes traditionally are single speed, or 3 speed. However, most that are imported into the US have 3 to 8 speeds. The recommended popular hub choices are: Sturmey archer, Shimano, & Sram 3 speeds; Sram 5 speed; Shimano Nexus & Sram 7 speeds; and Shimano Nexus 8 speed. There are other options that are less desirable for various reasons, including the Sturmey Archer 5 and 8 speed, & the Shimano Alfine 8 & 11 speed which require disk brakes. Disk brakes are not as desirable for utility bikes as the marketing campaigns have led many to believe, which leads to the next feature of a real Dutch bike.
4. Internal Hub Brakes: These are either traditional Drum brakes operated by either rod & linkage or cables, Shimano Roller brakes, or Coaster brakes. The problems with “rim brakes” for a utility bike are many: puddles, rain, fog, and dirt all make them less effective, often unpredictably so, and regular use wears down both the brake pads and even the rim itself since all modern rims for use with rim brakes are aluminum. Dusty or dirty conditions including wet weather rapidly wear down brake pads and rims, adding considerable maintenance and repair costs, and a slightly out-of-true wheel adversely effects braking performance.
Roller brakes are a modern invention and work very well. They do not utilize brake shoes, which can wear out over time. Instead, they are packed with a special grease, and the only maintenance is to periodically add a bit of grease through the grease port. Good-quality drum brakes are still made by Sturmey Archer and Sram. Coaster brakes work well in flat to moderately hilly areas when combined with a good front hub brake. However, with heavy use, these brakes end up requiring more maintenance and cost than hand-operated brakes, and the internal hub gears are often mechanically compromised in a few ways to make room for the braking system inside the hub. Drivetrain wear is also slightly accelerated.
5. Full Fenders: These are traditionally heavy-duty steel with sturdy fender stays, often incorporating replaceable rubber mud flaps, an integrated tail light housing, and rear “bumper” to protect the tail light and fender from damage. Modern bikes have accepted or invented the trend towards plastic fenders or plastic-coated aluminum fenders, both to save weight and reduce costs. This practice stems from the French Randonneuring bikes, which were often equipped with aluminum fenders to provide all-weather comfort without the heavier weight of steel fenders. Plastic is lighter, but becomes brittle with age and aluminum dents easily and gets soft with age, so steel is still the best choice for a true utility bicycle.
6. Heavy-Duty Frame: A Dutch bike is often heavier than others because it has thicker frame tubes. This results in a stronger, heavier-duty bicycle. Any decent utility bike will also come with at least a strong, steel rear rack, and will easily accept a frame-mounted rack up front as well. Popular child carriers such as Yepp and BoBike are easily attached and used. Durable paint finishes and lots of stainless steel hardware are also key features.
Traditionally and ideally, the frame is steel, however there are a few arguments for aluminum including lighter-weight (for carrying up stairs) and low cost. However, the main drawback to aluminum is an absurdly harsh ride, and this is why suspension seatposts and front forks, sometimes even shock-absorbing stems are utilized to make the bike ride civilly. This adds tremendously to the cost of the bike, adds weight, adds things to go wrong and break, and ultimately defeats the purpose to build with aluminum in the first place.
Additionally, aluminum in general is a weaker frame material and will not last as long as a steel frame will.
7. Generator-powered Lights: Traditionally a “bottle generator” was used which when engaged, pressed against the side of the tire. As the wheel turned, it turned the generator and powered the lights. Sturmey Archer came out with the Dyno Hub in 1935, an enclosed electrical generator inside the front hub. Nowadays, there are many options for front generator hubs and high-quality bottle generators are still made by AXA and other brands. A bottle generator is only recommended if the frame has an attachment for it. Utilizing bolt-on clamps to mount a bottle generator creates problems, is not reliable, and damages the paint leading to rust. Most real Dutch bikes will have a bottle generator mount built into the frame itself, usually on the front fork. Generator hubs, or Dynamo hubs, are very popular now, due to their relative lack of needed attention. They work silently, efficiently, do not wear out your tire, are not affected by rain or puddles, and have slightly less drag when the lights are on, compared to a bottle generator.
Popular choices are the Schmidt SON, Sturmey Archer, and Shimano dyno hubs.
Decent Dutch bikes these days have accepted modern LED lighting systems as standard. These are brighter than the old halogens and last much longer. The rear light also usually has a “stand-light”,–the light remains lit for a couple minutes even while stopped.
8. Built-in Lock: A real Dutch bike will almost always have a built-in Wheel Lock. Modern variations of these from the likes of Abus and AXA have a receptacle that accepts a flexible chain lock as well. You never need to remove the lock or the chain from the bike, so you always have your lock with you wherever you go. It is just one less thing you need to think about when hopping on your bike to go somewhere.
9. Sturdy Parking Stand: This is perhaps the most neglected item on most other bikes. A good center-stand is the hallmark of a practical utility bike. There are decent side-stands as well, and the Dutch do not neglect to integrate them into the bike as a whole unit, rather than just clamping them to the chainstays which can damage the structural integrity of the bike as well as the paint leading to rust problems. Inferior “kickstands” always come loose and cause problems, and even when new are rather useless, especially with fork-mounted front carriers and baskets. Loading and unloading heavy objects and children requires a good, sturdy center-stand and is complemented by a “stubbegrenza”, or steering wheel stabilizer, which is nothing more than a simple spring that keeps the front wheel from flopping around when it’s up on the parking stand.
10. Strong/Durable Wheels: Wheels should have stainless-steel spokes and either stainless steel or aluminum double-walled rims. Aluminum rims are becoming structurally superior to the traditional stainless rims, which results in a lighter-weight, stronger wheel. They allow the spokes to be tensioned higher and tires to be inflated to higher pressures. Cheap bikes often have chrome-plated steel or flimsy single-walled aluminum rims, chrome plated spokes, and cheap low-pressure tires prone to puncture. A modern fad is to use “deep-section” aluminum rims painted the same colour as the bicycle frame. These rims are usually very low quality, they are soft, heavier than they need to be, and not appropriate for a good utility bicycle.
Another key feature often over-looked is wheel size. While often a subject of debate, wheel size is a rather important feature greatly affecting the ride quality and feel of the bicycle. Traditionally, all Dutch “stadsfietsen” had 28” wheels, while the early “Transportfietsen” were 26”, later adapting the 28” wheel size. It should be noted however, that there are many confusing numbers associated with wheel size, tire size, and rim size, with complex abbreviations and rather misleading assumptions.
There are basically five sizes of wheel–(rim and tire combination) commonly used on utility bicycles today: 26” (often with “balloon tires”, 559 x 54-60mm”); 26 x 1 3/8”(590 x 37mm)–not commonly used on real Dutch bikes any more; 700c x 35-38mm; 700c x 42-48mm; and 700b x 42mm (635 x 42) the last two wheel sizes can properly be called 28 inch wheels, and this has to do with the overall outside diameter of the wheel and tire combination.
Is there any advantage to knowing all these numbers and technical lingo? Yes. Larger wheels roll better over bumps and ride smoother; the hubs turn slower per given speed reducing mechanical wear; there is a larger contact patch of tire on the road, resulting in superior traction and slightly less tire wear per mile.
Smaller wheels can in general be considered stronger and lighter, but in real-world conditions are only advantageous for heavy cargo-carrying abilities, folding bikes, very small frames, and cargo-specific bicycles like “truck bikes” or Bakfietsen.
Made in Holland (or US of A)!
Appropriately spec’d for U.S. terrain, climate, and cultural nuances: lower, broader gearing, specific ergonomic features, anti-theft considerations, over-all fool-proof features, lighter-duty where applicable, lighter-weight where applicable–(for carrying up stairs), 700c wheel size, bright LED lights, wicker basket-acceptable, Schrader valves on tires, etc.
All features as Standard Equipment.
1. Leather saddle (usually standard equipment on deluxe models), w/ anti-theft chain or cable.
2. Water-proof panniers w/ loop for a lock ( so they can stay on the bike while parked and not get stolen!)
3. Saddle cover for the leather saddle
4. Front rack (if not equipped)
5. Bell (every dutch bike comes standard with a bell, but the easiest, least-expensive way to personalize your bike is with a custom bell!)