There’s a common misperception that the millions of bikes around Amsterdam are cheap “junkers”. Sure, there are plenty of low-quality bikes around the city but they don’t last long. Their parts wear out and break, or they rust badly and then the bicycle quickly becomes unrepairable and gets thrown away… or more often left to rot until the city declares it a “wreck” (“fietswrak”) and carts it away. This actually doesn’t take long at all – usually just a couple months.
Along with the unfortunate but unavoidable disposable, modern bikes are also an amazing number of remarkably old bikes. These bicycles, 30, 50 even 70 years old aren’t pampered and regarded as classics (though some could be considered so). No, they’re just somebody’s trusty transportation, often having been in continuous service for a couple generations.
That’s amazing when you think about it: 20 or 30 kilos of steel, rubber, leather and maybe some plastic “overbuilt” to such a high quality standard that it can reliably carry several or many times its weight for a service life unthinkable for most products. It’s an incredible material efficiency and all the more fantastic considering that these bikes live outdoors in a cold, wet climate. All of the bikes in my photos have rust, but it’s mostly the dark brown (sometimes beautiful) patina of quality steel; It forms an oxide layer after the original paint or chrome has been worn off and then doesn’t corrode further. This is partially because the steel has few internal impurities so it doesn’t rust from within. That’s the nasty kind of orange rust that’s impossible to stop and will quickly kill your bike.
This is also a lesson in the importance of simplicity. More complicated products simply have more things to go wrong, require more service and are more likely to someday be declared irreparable. Note in these photos how few of the bikes have gears or hand brakes. Vestigial frame mounts for rod brakes are common though I don’t see any in these photos. Nor is there much “design” to be found here. Many are lovely bikes but there’s no pretentiousness or design just for design’s sake. This also plays are role in durability: things that go out of fashion cease to be maintained.
The accompanying photos are just of bikes I happened across over the last two weeks, mostly on Thursdays (that’s papa day) while walking around the city with my five month old son. The newest bikes in the photos were made in the 1960′s and the oldest probably date back to the 1930′s. Most Dutch bikes stayed approximately the same through this period and the differences are only of concern to the the enthusiast and mechanic. Unfortunately very few of the bikes made after this period and virtually none of the bikes from the 1980′s to the present will last nearly as long as these.
It’s specifically this timelessness and durability that WorkCycles strives to achieve. It’s an uphill battle though, given the unavailability of certain parts (a good coaster brake hub…), customers expecting features such as multiple gears and hand brakes and a modern world economy of cheap products made with inexpensive materials and overseas labor. We’re working on it and continually making improvements.