US cities have a long history of bicycling, and Indianapolis is no exception. However, much of the attention over the past few decades has focused on bicycles as recreation, instead of transportation. But if we look at the example set by cities where bikes are truly integrated into the transportation scheme, we see they have evolved quite differently from our own rolling stock. An in-depth look at Copenhagen Cycle Chic will bring you many examples of this bike from Denmark and around the world.
Recently, I had the opportunity to buy an old City Bike and learn more about it. This bike came with a story: a Dutch man brought it over to the US many years ago and used it to explore American cities outside of a car. This story was somewhat of a mystery to me when I first heard it. After all, what would convince a person to ship a huge and heavy bike across the world when local bikes were readily available?
After several months of riding this bike, I can honestly see why someone would grow attached to it in this way. It is unlike other bikes I have owned, even a recent comfort bike marketed for city cruising does not compare. It all comes down to having the right design philosophy. These European City Bikes have developed into their current form because of their adherence to 3 key principles:
This, along with 100 years of constant improvement, have created a form that is ubiquitous in cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam. The features of any given bike depend on the particular climate and needs of the owner, but here is a summary of some common features:
A City Bike is a solid machine intended to get its rider to their destination no matter what the weather or street conditions. This dependability and durability fosters a relationship between the rider and the bike. Truth be told, I would gladly pay to ship this bike across the world if I thought that a similar one were not available at my destination.
These bikes are great for the demands of a city-dweller. Any weather, any time of day, and any trip can be accommodated. The steel frame provides a very comfortable ride compared to a carbon fiber or aluminum option. The headlights really get attention. The carrying capacity is only bested by long frame or cargo bikes, and a city bike is often used for 2-up riding. The shifting is smooth and solid. And you never have to worry about getting chain grease on your clothing.
After a relative scarcity of City Bikes in the US, new models are once more becoming available. Look for Batavus or Gazelle for an authentic version, or check out some of the others on this list. If interested, I suggest talking to your local bike shops first. Just remember, these bikes are made to last for generations and only rarely require maintenance. But when it is time, you will want experienced hands working on these mechanisms.
And finally, a word about affordability. The use of a steel frame and standardized components really brings the cost down, compared with space-age exotic materials and integrated shifters found on most American bikes. Even with my purchase price, the new front hub and lighting system, and professional maintenance, I have less than $500 invested in my bike. I know it’s not an insignificant amount, but a really good value when all is considered. It is my hope that even if a city bike revolution is not just around the corner, that everyone understands a bit more about them.
(acknowledgments: thanks to Curt Ailes for helping me photograph these. Also, thanks to those at IndyCog and the Mayor’s office who have worked hard to improve bicycling infrastructure, you have made City Bikes useful in Indianapolis and I am very greatful.)