Wednesday 21 January 2009

Anatomy of a reliable, everyday bicycle

A few days ago someone who had watched my video of the rush hour in Assen asked me why there were so many similar looking bikes and so few had derailleur gears. This post is an attempt to explain.

This bike belongs to my wife, Judy. I am sure that some people looking at this picture will think it looks like an "old fashioned" bicycle. It's not. It's just a very practical bicycle. The result of many years of evolution of bicycle design for everyday use.

These bicycles are not an anachronism. They are an enabling technology for mass cycling. If you want the entire population to cycle, then this is the sort of bike they need to do it on. This bike has covered thousands of kilometres since we bought it (second hand), but apart from a little splashed mud it is spotless. It keeps itself clean and in good condition, despite no maintenance at all.

I'll explain some of the details of the design below.

The handlebars are relatively high and shaped like this because this leads to a very comfortable ride. This shape is also better suited than dropped or straight handlebars for attaching a basket. Judy's baskets were made in 2004 for her previous bike but they are still good. A bicycle bell is fitted. It's a legal requirement in the Netherlands, and also just a very good idea.

Chain case. This keeps your clothes clean, and makes it practical to ride in normal clothing. It also keeps the chain spotless, so that less maintenance is required. Chains last for many years when fully enclosed. Riders of bikes like this don't have to clean their chain after riding.

A full chain case like this is required to get these benefits. I have just a "hockey stick" shaped chain guard on my older English 3 speed. This does not fully protect the chain so I have required a new chain this year and have also had to clean and re-lube the chain. However, a hockey stick style chain case does protect trousers and can be retrofitted to other bikes.

The front light and dynamo (generator). Having lights permanently attached to your bike in this way is far more convenient than having to remove them when you park the bike. Having a dynamo to run the lights means that they are always available. Also see our blog post about selecting and installing dynamo lighting systems.

Batteries go flat - especially if lights are left on. Removable lights can be removed by other people when you park your bike.

The rear wheel lock and the skirt guard.

The lock on its own offers enough security for leaving your bike for a short period of time while shopping. Good quality locks of this type are very secure, and also can be used with a chain where more security is needed. The skirt guard keeps your clothes clean while you cycle, and make riding in normal clothing viable.

Note also the mudguards (fenders). These are steel and made to last. Thermoplastic mudguards also work well, and can be retrofitted to other bikes, but they're not so durable as steel and can crack after a few years use. The mudguards on this bike are adequately long at the front to prevent excess spray on your feet. With shorter mudguards, a mud-flap is very helpful to prevent spray. Note that this bike has a mud-flap at the rear, on what is really too short a mudguard to be entirely successful (even with practical Dutch bikes there is an element of style over substance).

This is the rear hub. This incorporates both the three gears on the bike and the rear brake, operated by a lever on the handlebars.

Enclosing the brake and gears leads to extremely high reliability. Neither the gears nor the brakes have required any maintenance, unlike my bike which has rim brakes and has required new brake pads. Not only rim brakes, but disc brakes also are not really low maintenance components. When used in winter, salt on the road causes the disc to rust, and brake pads need replacing fairly regularly. Drum brakes, or Shimano's roller brakes, are much more reliable than this.

Front wheel hub. The front brake is built into the wheel hub, and operated by the handle on the handlebars. Again, this type of brake is extremely reliable. No adjustment has been required at all in the time we've owned the bike.

Some other features of the bike, all directed towards reliability and convenience, are:
  1. Sturdy steel luggage rack. It's much more pleasant to carry luggage on a rack than in a rucksack. Let the bike do the work. If it's sturdy enough, as this one is, then it can also be used to carry friends.
  2. Puncture proof tyres.
  3. Reflective sidewalls.
  4. Thicker spokes for stronger wheels.
  5. Chrome plated stainless steel rims - which look beautiful and last forever (a good idea with hub brakes as fitted on this bike, not a good idea on a bike with with rim brakes)
  6. A paint finish designed to last 20 years of use outdoors.
  7. A kick stand. That's why the bike can stand up on its own, with no support.
  8. On an upright bicycle, a wider saddle is needed than on a sports bicycle. Read about saddles in another blog post.
This bicycle was made by Azor in a factory just 40 km south of where we live. I took a video in the factory earlier this year, which features in a post about a visit to a bike shop which I made earlier this year.

I also went out and took a few photos of other bikes parked around the city. You'll see that the majority incorporate the same features as seen above:

Two interesting bikes. The pink one is a child's bike made just as practical as an adults bike with all the features discussed above. This is needed as virtually all children use their bikes daily to get to school. The other bike to its right has a low step over frame, which is useful for people with limited ability to lift their legs. e.g. older people, or people with disabilities.

The bike to the left of the child's bike has a fold down child seat on the back.

Two bikes fitted with front child seats and windscreens for the children. These are very common, as otherwise children sitting in front of their parents can get quite cold when being transported by bicycle in winter.

You can buy bicycles (moederfietsen) built specifically to carry two children, one in front and one behind. They come as standard fitted with both child seats and with a windshield like this.

One of the other ways that people use to carry small children is in bike trailers. This bike also has a seat mounted behind the handlebars, but no wind-shield.

This bike is fitted with a "springer" for walking a dog while you cycle. Most people simply hold the dog's lead, which with a well trained dog works perfectly well. It is legal in this country to walk one dog while you cycle (but not two or more dogs).

An extra tall frame bike (the Dutch are now the tallest race in the world) and a bike with a serial number pressed into the frame in a very obvious way - an anti-theft idea that some manufacturers are using, and which makes it very difficult to disguise the serial number of a bicycle.

Bike fitted with a sturdy front rack. These are quite commonly used and work extremely well for carrying large and heavy items. Again an enabling technology to allow people to make journeys by bike for which they might otherwise have used a car. They fit most bikes and you can buy them here.

A traditional looking bike, but actually new. This design is very popular, especially amongst the young.

As with many of the other bikes shown, this has just a back pedal (coaster) brake. It is legal to have just the back pedal brake here, and it's a common arrangement. Coaster brakes are very reliable, so again this is useful for an everyday bike.

Finally a view of someone getting on with using their bike in the centre of Assen, as people do everyday...

If you have an existing bike with fewer of these practical components, it is possible to convert it. This website provides components for conversion of mountain bikes or road bikes.

We use similar bikes for our cycling holiday customers.

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