Staring at the tarmac

I have been in London for nearly three months now. My second stint, as an immigrant, in this gorgeous country. I am a foreigner and as such, I have not grown up with certain “English mentalities”, as it comes to cycling. There is one thing, which really baffles me. The difference in the kind of bikes sold and used over here, compared to mainland Europe (Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Germany).

What I have noticed is, the English like to stare at the tarmac, while cycling. They like to contort themselves in strange positions on a bike, head down, unaware of their surroundings! And you know why? Because they don’t know any better! Because in this country, it is hard to come by a decent utility bike. 

If you quickly look at bike shop websites you can easily spot the problem. Look for example at this:

  

Look at the Bike Categories. ~ Road, mountain and hybrid~  

    
 

Above is an excellent example of a run of the mill mass bike shop and they all sell tarmac staring bikes. And you know what? I don’t get this. A city like London is a city where danger comes from all sides. Car drivers, hgv drivers and anything in between. But, you also need to be aware of other weak road users, such as pedestrians. How can you keep an eye on all that, when your eyes are fixed to the floor and your back is bent over? I simply cannot put two and two together.

When talking to “anti-cycling” people, I often hear the likes of: “you lycra wearing road terrorists”. But, that is the mentality, here in The UK. I wonder, without realising, are cyclists contributing to this mentality? By the choice of the bike they cycle? 

Would an anti cycling person say the same to people in these pictures? (with thanks to aviewfromthecyclepath.com)

   
 
I would like to open up this discussion among my fellow cyclists. What kind of bike do you cycle and why do you cycle exactly that kind of bike? Do you feel there is (not) enough choice when it comes to buying a bike? What kind of bikes did you grow up with?

I’d like to understand the differences in mentality and inherently the culture. To see whether it is possible at all for the Dutch culture to be adapted here in the UK. Why is there such a big difference between the sort of bikes in both countries?  Do let me know your thoughts.

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12 thoughts on “Staring at the tarmac

  1. I got fed up with getting a sore neck when riding a common UK bike, and also having to carry lights around with me, so started looking for alternatives. I ended up going along with a Dutch import, however had to travel from London to Littlehampton to a bike shop to be able to buy one without going to The Netherlands to get one.

    My wife always complains that my Brompton makes me lean over too much, and is bad for my back.

    The first time I came across a cargo bike in person and got to ride one, made me go “yeah, I’m getting one of those in the future”; and sure enough it’s happened.

    My wife would not have been able to cycle right the way through pregnancy if she didn’t have an upright Pashley, as the bump gets in the way pretty quick when you have to lean forward to cycle.

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    • Interesting to hear! Cargo bikes are brilliant too for upright seating. If you are ever looking for a proper Dutch bike in London, I can recommend Flying Dutchman. @fdbikes on twitter. They sell proper Dutch, upright bikes. And will be stocking lovely gazelle’s soon.

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  2. As your son’s at Harris across the park from us, I assume you live in Haringey. There’s a flourishing cyclists’ campaign and there was a Haringey borough cycling conference only a few weeks ago.

    Apologies if you know all this already. If not the website is here: http://www.haringeycyclists.org/about-us/. And they tweet on @HaringeyCyclist. We know some of the members who are great! I’m sure you will get some helpful answers to your bike inquiries.

    I gave up bike riding in London many years ago.Too scary. Do you know the book “Happy City” by Charles Montgomery? (Review here: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/dec/29/happy-city-charles-montgomery-review.) The Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green may have a copy left. A while ago they told me it was selling well.)
    Montgomery criticises the cult of the “hero cyclist”, The young, fit, usually male, lycra-clad bloke who does daily battle with cars and trucks.

    Cycling should be for everyone he thinks. And so – I’m sure you know – does Jan Gehl living longer as he and his wife peddle around Copenhagen in bicycle-only lanes he helped create. If only London had chosen this.

    But maybe one day. Stuart McNamara – a councillor and friend of ours, talked glowingly about a rep from the Cycling Embassy of Denmark who came. http://www.cycling-embassy.dk/

    Anyway, I look forward to reading more of your blog.

    Alan Stanton

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    • Hey Allan, thank you for all the info. I know the cycling community in Haringey a bit, as I have just moved here. I have been to the cycling conference, but felt they were already preaching to the converted, who don’t have the budget to put the plans into action. Stuart MacNamara wants, but hasn’t got the budget, nor everybody on board. I fear, cycling and its infrastructure needs to come from a mentality change in the underbelly. The only way to do so, is actually go out there, as a mum with a kid, cycling and talking to the people who live here. And shouting to the policy makers. Quite frankly, it feels like talking to the great wall of China most days. I can’t even get the council to do something as straightforward as putting a zebra crossing at my kid’s school. And people here just take it, lieing down.
      I hope you might attend the annual “stop killing cyclists” die-in next Friday at 5pm? In front of TFL headquarters on Blackfriars Road. We will offer a strong voice, we will challenge the mayoral candidates. If you hear what Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith have been saying the last few days, London is going in for a rocky time! Thanks for reading and having your voice heard!

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  3. Tarmac staring bikes, what a excellent expression! Just what I needed. I agree completely with your sentiments about the shortcomings of the dominant bicycle model in Britain. I’m convinced it is a mayor barrier to the normalization of cycling in this country. This is however not recognized as such by the majority of the cycling community, who I’ve found in general not to be very receptive of the notion that they might be selling/riding/recommending the wrong bicycles. I wish you best of luck trying to open the discussion among your fellow cyclists! It certainly needs to be discussed. I have written quite a bit about this over the last few years, on various platforms, and you might like to read my article for the 2014 edition of Get Britain Cycling, which has also appeared, in a slightly adapted version, on The Cycling Dutchman’s blog: http://thecyclingdutchman.blogspot.co.uk/2014_05_01_archive.html
    While some people who consider themselves real cyclists seem to become slightly allergic to anything with the word ‘Dutch’ in it, I find a welcome ear among those people who are currently not cycling (a lot) but who would like to start to cycle (more). People who would never be found reading cycling blogs like this! I meet them in shows, fairs, Christmas do’s, the local market, etc, where I offer rides on my collection of (used) Dutch hybrides(comfortable, upright bicycles with 7 – 27 gears). The surprise, time and again, the overwhelmingly positive reactions, the whoops of delight, the radiant faces on returning the bike have convinced me that a lot more people in this country would be cycling if only they knew about and had easy access to these Dutch bicycles. Unfortunately the world of cycling in Britain is a bit of a closed shop: almost everyone in the business of selling bicycles has come to the industry out of enthousiasm about cycling as a sport. No shopkeeper (bar a few) or those running bike shops like you show above has any experience or affinity with upright Dutch bicycles, or would even be interested in trying one. And yes, most, if not all of the cycling campaigners, even though they might by now be all for utility and transport cycling, have a background of sport-cycling, and don’t see a problem with their bikes. Their emphasis is on infrastructure, and rightly so, but without addressing the problem of the availablity of suitable bicycles, I can’t see the general public taking up cycling in the way that we’re used to in The Netherlands and Belgium.
    How to convince your fellow cyclists in London then? I would say give them a nice Batavus or Gazelle to try and then ask them if they think they would like one themselves (not likely!) or if they think they should try to persuade a non-cycling family member to have a go!
    There is a lot more to be said about this subject, and you’re welcome to contact me if you’d like to carry on the conversation. Best wishes for now, met vriendelijke groet, Berno

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    • Hey Berno, thank you for reading my blog and for your lovely reply. You might be pleased to hear I brought my “omafiets” home! You can read all about it in my new blogpost.
      I have had quite a few reactions from locals here already and even from my housemates. This is a two wheeler, they haven’t see, in their lives, yet! I just we have to convince one person after another and if we keep doing that we might actually get some progress going!

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  4. Oh yes, I completely agree. The lack of choice in this country of proper, practical city bikes is a big problem. There’s a few specialists, but for your average person, shopping at Halfords, Evans etc., there’s nothing. It’s particularly ironic, as the classic Dutch bike has its origins in England http://www.roadswerenotbuiltforcars.com/dutchbike/

    There’s the odd UK manufacturer making city bikes, Pashley and Bobbin for example. But even these are missing the basics you’d see on a Dutch bike. Most importantly, dynamo lights, which I think are essential.

    Another big problem is the lack of residential parking for bikes and the impact this has on the choice of bike people buy. If you have to negotiate a tricky hallway or flight of stairs because you don’t have access to any outdoor parking, then you’re more inclined to buy a lighter, less practical bike.

    I personally ride a mini cargobike (Kona MinUte) most of the time, that I use for transporting myself, kids and other cargo on, which has a nice upright riding position. I’ve also retro-fitted a dynamo hub and lights to it. Though I’m also now on a hunt for my first actual Dutch bike.

    Liking your blog and your new wheels. I look forward to reading more about your adventures cargobiking in London!

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    • Hi Dom,
      Thanks for putting in that link. I wonder if Cargobike Mum has read it and what she thinks of it? To me the article seems to be a particular fine example of the sort of allergic reaction to the popularity of anything ‘Dutch’ I was referring to above! The origin of the omafiets design is certainly interesting as a historical footnote, but it doesn’t help anyone like you who is hunting for a modern Dutch bike. The article makes the (common) mistake to equate ‘Dutch bike’ with ‘black, heavy omafiets’. That is a shame, because it fails to mention the many developments and improvements the Dutch manufacturers have made to their bikes in the last forty years. There is now a wide variety of types and models available, some of which are far more suitable for Britain than the omafiets (and indeed, more suitable that the average bike sold in Britain!). Worth considering are the so called ‘hybrides’, comfortable upright bicycles with anything from 7 to 27 gears. Some of those are light enough to carry up stairs (I know, I had three flights to negotiate!), but still have all the practical accessories attached. Mine served me well on camping holidays (that’s how I ended up in Wales!) and for years I carried my children in their Bobike seat on the back. They might be pricier than the average British bike, but considering they are built to last 20 years (kept outside) and there are no retro-fits necessary, I would not call them expensive. Anyway, if the price is a problem you could opt for a second hand one. There are thousands of quality used bikes to be found in the Netherlands, on the internet as well as from bicycle shops. In Britain they are hard to find, even new, unfortunately. Depending on where you are you could try: Cycle Heaven in York, Dutch Bikes Littlehampton, or (a newcomer, with the widest variety) BeDutch! in Guildford. Personally I stock used ‘sporthybrides’ (those with 18+ gears, because of the hills), but I think I’m out of the way of almost everyone!

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      • We definitely need more bike shops “up north” too who sell utility bikes. I would love to open one myself one day. Thanks for all the comments guys, very usefull and informative! I do read all of them and the links provided 😉

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  5. Fixed wheel cyclecross bike for commuting here. However, I’ll argue it’s the best bike for the job for me. I ride from one large town to another across largely rural setting. It’s 15 miles so speed is good, I avoid the busy areas by riding gravel paths where I can, hence the cyclocross-ness. It works for me.

    I’ve got lots of bikes. When I ride into my local town I usually do it on my touring bike. Again, it’s a 700c, drop barred bike. Bit more relaxed than the CX bike, I’m sitting up a lot more and it’s by no means fast. I wish I had a dutch style bike and I almost bought one of the pashley’s the post office was selling off. Ooh, hang on, they may have some left. Bye.

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    • I am not sure where you are from, but there is a lovely Dutch bike store in London, called flying Dutchman. Dutch bikes are generally lighter than pashleys too, might be of interest. 😁

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  6. Pingback: Sexy Back | London Cargobike Mum

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